Chronicling the characters from this title without giving spoilers was particularly tricky. I’ve excluded some information deliberately.
“No! I won’t go! I won’t let you trade me to our enemies like a prize horse! I won’t marry some prince I’ve never met!”
Some wars play out like a game of chess, and pieces are sacrificed to benefit their king. But if a pawn stands up for itself and refuses to play the moves decreed, entire kingdoms might fall.
Birthdate: June 26, 1582
Date of Death: 1649
Age at the time of this story: 19/20
Physical Characteristics: 5’8” tall, 130 lbs, wavy blond hair, blue eyes, strikingly pretty
Titles: Her Royal Highness/Princess
Nickname: The Caledon Rose (which she despises)
Katherine, or Kate, as she is commonly called, is the second child of King Edward and Queen Marguerite. Her older brother, James, is heir to Caledon’s throne. After losing their mother in 1587, the siblings became particularly close, since their father is completely disinterested in them. The children are primarily raised by governesses and tutors.
Kate is a strikingly pretty child who acquires the nickname “The Caledon Rose” at the age of six. She doesn’t like it and occasionally has physically retaliated against those who use it. She is headstrong, independent, and determined to do everything her brother can do. Sometimes James struggles to keep up with Kate!
Kate loves horses and has taken riding lessons since the age of three from some of the finest instructors in Caledon. She is fond of music and singing, particularly Caledonian folk tunes. Kate is fluent in the old language, despite her declarations to the contrary. She loves dancing and enjoys being with others—an unusually extroverted member of a very introverted family. Life at the castle is lonely for Kate, who takes to following the servants around and chatting to them while they work, for want of other friends.
As Kate grows, her father determines to use her beauty to better the nation and seeks an advantageous match for his daughter. When an offer of marriage and a peace treaty come from Langdon, King Edward determines that Kate will marry a stranger for the sake of her war-stricken nation.
Edward did not reckon on his daughter’s headstrong independence, however, and Kate is not about to abandon her romantic notions. Armed with a small sack of coins, Kate flees the castle.
"‘The Caledon Rose.’ Ugh! I swore I would smack the next person who called me that. Then Father did. Can't smack him, unfortunately. Wish I could. Who does he think he is?
The king of Caledon, I suppose. All my life, he's pounded it into my head that I must marry well for the sake of the nation. A prince. A duke, at least. I always thought I would have some say in which one.
But no! I'll be packed off to sworn enemies to marry the crown prince of Langdon without so much as a "how do you do?" Goodness knows how old the man is. And he probably looks like a wart on a toad.
Father doesn't care about any of that. He expects me to pack my things and prepare for the journey to Langdon City. I'll pack, all right! But I'm not going to marry some nitwit prince just because Father says I shall! I haven't played my last card yet…”
Background Information—the Caledonian language:
In the early thirteenth century, Zandor started using English as its preferred language for trade and commerce. Langdon followed their lead shortly after that. Caledon was slower to adopt new ways and continued using Caledonian into the fifteenth century.
By the mid-sixteenth century, English was in everyday use throughout the island, with Langdon and Zandor having abandoned the old language two hundred years earlier. Many Caledonians, though, still understood Caledonian and could speak it when necessary.
By the eighteenth century, Caledonian was no longer in use on the island. By the nineteenth, all but the most dedicated linguists had forgotten it. By the twenty-first century, Caledonian ranked with Latin as a “dead” language, and very few people could comprehend or translate it without the aid of books and apps.
The Mystics held onto Caledonian the longest, but even they ceased speaking it in the eighteenth century. They continued to use Caledonian ceremonially—ritual chanting rather than knowledge of syntax and grammar.
“If you wake me up to kill a spider, it had better be a huge one.”
Hard-working Andrew wasn’t looking for a life-changing night at a folk dance in Salt Flats. But things have a way of slapping a man in the face to get his attention, and they aren’t always what they seem.
Birthdate: November 1577
Age at the time of this story: 24
Physical Characteristics: 6’0” tall, 180 lbs, brown hair, blue eyes
Andrew, a jack-of-all-trades, is working on a sheep farm with his cousin in Salt Flats for the summer. The rest of the year, he is employed in Langdon City. He spent three years in the military, where he learned to ride, and he is a skilled violinist.
“My cousin's place near Salt Flats is boring. My aunt is stuffy, and there's nothing exciting to do. I don't know why I still bother coming up here.
So when I heard about the dance in town on Saturday night, I was eager to try something new. John didn't want to go, so I dressed up and went on my own.
Who'd have thought I'd meet HER there? She's spunky, witty, intelligent, and by the gods, she's the most beautiful creature I've ever laid eyes on. She takes no nonsense from anyone; she's very capable of taking care of herself. I'm slightly afraid of her.
She's a farm girl from Caledon, but some things about her just don't add up. Nothing like a bit of mystery coupled with danger to keep a guy coming back for more...
She looks at me funny sometimes, as though she suspects that I'm not being entirely truthful with her either…”
I wanted to include four characters from this book, but the post got too long, so next month, Part Two will detail Prince Albert and Mrs. Hadley. See you then!
Writing character sketches without giving spoilers has been more challenging than I expected. I’ve tried to give current readers a richer glimpse into the world of Caledon without exposing potential readers to secrets they haven’t discovered yet.
“But what is the Dragon’s Fire?”
The million-dollar question. When Ciara is appointed Cosantoiri an Dragon Ar, she longs to know what the mysterious treasure is that she is supposed to guard. Not content to accept the title and ignore the details, Ciara sets out to discover the Dragon’s Fire and stirs up a hornet’s nest of trouble for her efforts.
Birthdate: June 16, 1198
Date of Death: 1274
Age at the time of this story: 19/20
Physical Characteristics: 5’5” tall, 120 lbs, straight blond hair, blue eyes, pale complexion
Titles: Crown Princess/Her Royal Highness/Cosantoiri an Dragon Ar
Ciara, the eldest daughter of Kerrion and Lillianna Muerren, is heir to Caledon’s throne. She has been betrothed to Adrian Zandor since she was four years old, and she expects that he will govern the country when they take power. Ciara lost her mother when she was three, and she was raised by nannies and governesses. Some of them were quite strict, and Ciara is accustomed to being told what to do and following orders. She is also quite comfortable with the dictates of her time and society: that men are leaders, and she should be subservient to them. She is close to her father, but Kerrion has not taught her how to rule, also expecting that Adrian will eventually govern the nation.
Ciara is an excellent artist and particularly enjoys working with egg tempera paints. She is a moderately-skilled horsewoman. Although not physically strong, she takes lessons in swordplay and enjoys the exercise. Ciara is timid by nature and easily swayed to bend to the will of others.
“I always thought the Dragon's Fire a myth—but apparently, I need to guard it? From what? Aren't its natural guardians far more capable than I, if indeed the thing exists? Cosantoiri an Dragon Ar—a title I never thought to bear.
“I heard sounds and saw lights in the south turret last night—a tower supposedly closed up to all of us. Mya says the castle is haunted, but that's a ridiculous notion. Isn't it? I want answers, but I don't know where to seek them. Most of all, I want to sleep. Perhaps the Mystics might give me something to help me sleep? They owe me that, don't they, after their peculiar ceremony turned my world upside down?”
Background Information—Caledonian law regarding ascent to the throne:
The throne is passed to the eldest son of the reigning king/queen. If he is unable to rule, his younger brothers inherit, in order of descending age. In the absence of sons, daughters inherit, again in order by age, eldest first. If there is no royal offspring, the throne passes first to siblings of the reigning king/queen, then to nephews, then nieces, always in descending order of age.
When a royal heir marries, his or her spouse gains equal rank and title (king/queen, prince/princess). The spouse’s power lasts only as long as the blood royal lives.
So Ciara’s husband will rule as king, equal to her, until her death, at which point, the throne will pass to their son(s), daughter(s), or, in the absence of royal offspring, to Ciara’s younger sister, Mya, and then to Mya’s sons or daughters, in that order.
A royal may not ascend the throne with ruling power until they attain the age of 16 years. If a prince or princess inherits the throne while not yet of age, a Regent will rule for the child. This Regent may be the surviving non-royal parent, another member of the royal family, or a trusted advisor. At the age of 16, the heir will be crowned king/queen. A Regent may also be appointed if the reigning king or queen is incapacitated. This Regent will be, firstly, the spouse of the king or queen, or secondly, the next heir to the throne, before the role passes to other family members or royal advisors.
A Regent has all the power of the throne, except the ability to change/write/disallow laws. They may make and cancel treaties, award titles, declare wars, pronounce sentences, etc., all according to the existing laws.
“What if there were a third path to the throne that did not involve either of Kerrion’s daughters? One far more powerful than a vow to a princess?”
Innovative and progressive, Adrian is always looking for a better way to do things, even a better way to become the king of Caledon.
Birthdate: February 9, 1188
Date of Death: June 25, 1277
Age at the time of this story: 30
Physical Characteristics: 5’11” tall, 177 lbs, brown hair, brown eyes, trimmed beard
Titles: Lord Zandor/Vassal of Southlee
Adrian Zandor comes of an ancient Caledonian family and is the son of one of the highest noblemen in the nation. He has been betrothed to Princess Ciara Muerren since he was 14.
Adrian craves power. Legally, the only way to claim kingship is by the hand of the rightful heir, but Adrian has been looking for a way around the law for years.
Adrian is a skilled swordsman, trained for battle. He loves dogs and dotes on his hound, Grymwalde. An intelligent, progressive man, Adrian is frustrated to see Caledon “stuck” in the past and would like to encourage trade and development. He is not fond of social engagements, preferring solitude to crowds, and he does not dance. He doesn’t have a lot of time or respect for Caledon’s ancient religion or her myths until he learns that one of the legends might be true.
“Everyone in Caledon has heard of the Dragon's Fire, but few have seen it—so few that most believe the treasure is nothing more than a faerie tale. Countless stories swirl around the Dragon's Fire, not the least of them the legend that declares, ‘He who holds the Fire holds the throne.’
“The treaty that binds me to the princess assures me the throne of Caledon, but I have a duty to the nation to determine what this thing is that Ciara has told me about.
“Still, the Dragon's Fire supposedly lies deep within the Sacred Cliffs, guarded by Aderyntan by sea, and Cythraul by land. I can't say which I would rather face: a winged monster who defends the waters with fire, or a swift and cunning demon who fears neither sword nor flame.
“What is truth, and what is myth? The future of the throne may depend upon the unraveling of this legend…”
Background Information—the Caledonian marriage treaty:
A marriage treaty is generally arranged by fathers or their representatives. The signature of the future groom may be affixed, but the signature of the bride is never required. Marriage treaties may only be broken by the signers or their legal representatives. The use of marriage treaties was not abolished in Caledon until the late 19th century, although few royals were subjected to them.
“Don’t let history write itself for you.”
The tagline for the entire series, Eric says these words to Ciara to encourage her to start standing up for herself—to take charge of a world that is spinning out of her control. His challenge starts her on a daring path that will launch 800 years of history and change their world forever.
Date of Death: 1257
Age at the time of this story: 24
Physical Characteristics: 5’10” tall, 180 lbs, blond hair, blue eyes
Eric Grenleigh is the son of the Archmystic and comes from a line of high Mystics that goes back for hundreds of years. Though he was trained from childhood in spells and potions, he enjoys boats far more than books. He has grown up watching his father perform ceremonies, cast spells, and spout Mystic dogma; he has seen where religion has power and where it doesn’t.
By his early twenties, Eric is disenchanted with the Mystics and regularly avoids their celebrations and rituals. He enjoys sailing and fishing, is good with horses, a good dancer, and skilled at building things. He is particularly fascinated with shipbuilding.
Eric is a practical, logical, unemotional person. He is a problem-solver and doesn’t have a lot of patience for drama or superstitious/religious hysteria.
“I thought the royals were trained to painstakingly conceal their emotions—the unflattering ones, at least. But I've never seen anyone look so bewildered and confused as Princess Ciara did tonight when my father held that torch over her head, called the blessing of Morrigan and the dragons down upon her, and named her Cosantoiri an Dragon Ar. I almost laughed aloud—and might have, had I not feared facing Father’s wrath for disrupting their sacred ceremony. The princess’ expression was so comical!
“Women are like cats—it's curiosity that kills them. Once she's had time to think about this, she's going to come to our village repeating her question that I didn't dare answer tonight: What is the Dragon’s Fire? I can't tell her. They'll slaughter me. But what if she commands me to reveal what I know?
“Besides, I've always been a fool for blue-eyed blonds…”
Background Information—the name “Grenleigh.”
Grenleigh is a combination of two Caledonian words, “gren” and “leigh,” meaning “green” and “meadow” respectively. The name originates far back in history when it was initially “an Gren Leigh,” or “of Green Meadow.” The serfs who bore the name labored in a nobleman’s fields and acquired their “surname” as such. Eventually, the “an” was dropped, and “green meadow” combined into one word.
Next month: Character Sketches from The Rose of Caledon!
Over the next few months, I’m going to share some character sketches from each book in the series. I’m hoping to enrich the stories for readers and to encourage those who haven’t read them to pick them up and give them a try!
I was going to start with the human characters from Dragon’s Fire, but I decided to begin with the dragons instead. They play a small role in Book One, but I developed them extensively for my upcoming new release (Book Six.) I feel that they deserve their place as characters, and they’re going to open this blog series.
Aderyntan is a Caledonian word meaning “firebird.” Aderyntans live on the rocky coasts of Caledon, spending their days diving for fish and performing aerial acrobatics in the updrafts off the sea.
Aderyntans have brownish-silver scales, leathery wings, and four legs with four vicious talons on each foot. Aderyntans have a pointed snout, often called a “beak,” with sharp teeth along its length. They have two horns on the top of their head, similar to those of a goat. They can walk on four legs or two: on four legs, they move like a dog; on two, they hop in an awkward, lopsided fashion. When standing on all fours, their heads reach a height of about three feet, but when they stand on their hind legs, they can be as tall as a man. If they spread their wings when they do this, they are a terrifying sight, since their wingspan is 20 to 24 feet. Their muscular tails are four to six feet in length, and they use them to balance themselves in flight and to aid them in propelling through the water when swimming.
Aderyntans can hold their breath underwater for up to 30 seconds. In flight, they can ascend and descend at 90-degree angles, and are capable of sharp cornering and maneuvering in tight spaces. Their flight speeds can reach 40 miles per hour, and they can sustain those speeds for 15 minutes at a time. When they fly, they tuck their feet close to their bodies to minimize wind resistance, giving themselves the appearance of winged serpents in the sky.
Aderyntans breathe an intensely hot flame from their nostrils, which can incinerate a piece of wood within a few seconds and can set fabric ablaze instantly.
Aderyntans, who are highly intelligent, diurnal creatures, live in groups called “cayills,” which may consist of up to 50 individuals, including several males. There is a hierarchy within the cayill, with the smarter, faster dragons taking leadership roles.
Aderyntans eat only fish, and they use their beaks or talons to grasp and pull prey from the water. They are not a threat to humans unless they feel that their nests or their fishing grounds are in danger. For this reason, boats do not sail in Aderyntans’ waters, and fearsome rumors of the creatures’ ferocity have traveled far from Caledon’s shores.
Breeding pairs will make a nest of sticks and leaves for their young. A female Aderyntan will lay between two and four eggs in a clutch, which will hatch after an incubation period of ten weeks. She will feed and guard her young for three months, after which, she prods them out of the nest, and they learn to fly on their way down to the sea. Those who pass the flying test will learn to fish by imitating others in the cayill and proceed to care for themselves. Those who don’t become food for sea creatures.
Young Aderyntans have a voracious appetite and grow rapidly for the first six to eight months of their lives.
Aderyntans live primarily on the west coast of Caledon, where the weather and the ocean currents are favorable to producing the abundance of fish they need to survive. Their numbers are prolific until about 1000AD when diminishing food supplies begin to decrease their population. By 1218, the time of Dragon’s Fire, fewer than 50 of the dragons remain, concentrated on the northwest shore of Caledon.
Cythraul is a Caledonian word meaning “demon.”
Cythraul is a bipedal dragon with shiny silver scales and large golden eyes that notoriously catch and reflect light, like those of a cat. Full-grown, the dragon stands between five and eight feet tall, with males being taller and heavier than females. Cythraul has three claws on each hind foot; the inside one is larger than the others and curved like a sickle. It uses this claw to impale its prey. Its two forelegs are much smaller than its hind legs, and it uses these like hands for grasping. Cythraul’s five-inch-long fangs are serrated. Its five-foot-long tail is used to balance while walking and running, and the dragon tends to smack it against things when annoyed. Cythrauls can reach speeds of 20 miles per hour in short bursts and can sustain speeds of six to eight miles per hour for 30 minutes or more. They cannot climb trees nor swim but are very agile at negotiating the steep cliffs and caves in northwest Caledon.
Cythraul is a highly intelligent, nocturnal pack hunter with no sense of humor, and will eat anything that moves. The dragons have a sophisticated communication system which allows them to share locations, targets, and attack plans. Just before an attack, all communication silences. The dragon impales its victims and guts them alive. Eventually, the pack tears their prey to pieces and shares the spoils. Hunting packs can range in number from two to ten individuals.
Female Cythrauls lay one egg per year, and are fiercely protective of their young. Eggs hatch after 16 weeks. The mother Cythraul tends her infant for two months without leaving the lair, while other pack members supply food which she shreds and feeds to her baby. After two months, she takes her infant out in the daytime to practice hunting rodents and other small animals.
When the young Cythraul is six months old, it goes out at night to hunt but is not included in a pack until it is an adult. As a juvenile, it learns by trial and error the skills required to feed itself. It usually stays near a pack and can call for help if it needs it.
Cythrauls are fascinated and enraged by fire. Young Cythrauls can even be distracted from prey by the flames. Adults know that humans are usually the source of fire and will scatter the blaze and attack the instigator.
Cythrauls inhabit northwestern Caledon, where food is plentiful and Aderyntan, with his enchanting fire, is a difficult-to-catch delicacy. As people spread out from Ampleforth, occupying the dragons’ hunting grounds and competing for food, the Cythrauls’ numbers and range dwindle. By 1218, very few Cythrauls remain—the population is so low that few people have ever actually seen a Cythraul. The remaining individuals exist and hunt on the Sacred Cliffs.
Religion and the Dragons
The Mystics believe that the dragons are representatives of the Caledonian gods, and possibly, at times, the embodiment of them. As such, they protect the dragons and refuse to allow anyone to kill them. They offer regular sacrifices to Cythraul and give Aderyntan homage and space.
Punishment for deliberately killing a dragon can include hard labor, imprisonment, torture, or death, depending on the whim of the Archmystic. However, the people fear the dragons as much or more than they fear the Mystics, and will slay a dragon if necessary and possible. This also contributes to the decline of the dragon populations, as people in areas further from Ampleforth are less likely to be found out or punished for killing one. Thus, by 1218, the dragon population is centered at the Sacred Cliffs.
Every book has a Big Three: Characters, Setting, and Plot. Each of these elements influences what the story becomes. Change any of them, and the book alters dramatically.
Characters are a tremendous driving force in a story. They can shape the direction of a plot when they respond differently than you had expected to an event. Invariably, my characters take over entirely, and my carefully crafted plotlines are abandoned as strong personalities steer the story where they want it to go. Inevitably, the story ends up better than my original plan for it.
Sometimes, a character forms in my head and has a story written around them. Other times, as a story is developing, characters get created and plugged into the plot as they are needed. Usually, a combination of both those methods comes into play. Occasionally, a minor character tells me they have a story of their own. This happened with James Grenleigh—who launched my series, really, because I wasn’t planning a sequel to Rose until he spoke up.
What goes into creating an unforgettable character? A lot. Every major character—the protagonist, the villain, and any secondary characters with a significant role—must have layers. They need likes and dislikes, things they are good at and things they are not, different personality traits and moods. Characters should be relatable—readers should be able to identify with some aspect of the personality or motivation of at least a few of the characters. When this doesn’t happen, reader disconnect occurs—the reader simply won’t enjoy the book as much as they otherwise might have.
Every major character has a backstory, some of which will make it into the text and most of which won’t. The secret of the backstory is to include what’s necessary and interesting without bogging the story down.
Every character must have motivation. People don’t go around doing things for no reason—neither should characters. There should be an instigating factor that forces them to act or a payoff for an action they choose to perform.
Each major character must have desires, goals, and a method to achieve them. Whether or not that method will be successful is the main thread of the plot. The main characters must grow and change as the story progresses—sometimes they improve, and sometimes they degenerate. And everyone, even when their goals conflict, must believe that what they are doing is right.
Each character’s relationship to the protagonist is vital, since everyone, including the villain, is there to enhance the protagonist’s story. Main characters drive the plot. Secondary characters must support the hero or the villain. A minor character is like an extra in a movie—an unnamed body in the room: a soldier, a servant, a villager.
As I develop characters, I pay careful attention to their
My characters become very real to me. I become friends with them, and they live on in my head long after their story is told. In upcoming blogs, I’ll share some character sketches from the series, along with 1st-person perspectives from some of the major characters and details that weren’t included in the books. Stay tuned!
I pride myself on my work being as accurate as possible. The historical fantasy genre allows for a lot more creative freedom than does historical fiction, but that word “historical” is still there, and I want my work to ring true for readers. Thus, I try very hard to get the facts right. My heroines do a bit more independent wandering than would have been permitted for women of their respective times, and some of the described clothing is not entirely accurate to each period, but for that, I claim my “Fantasy!” license.
Other things are exact. Moon phases, for example: I really wanted a full moon for Myrhiadh’s traipse up the turret stairs to Jae’s bedroom, but the date the action took place was a new moon, so I had to figure out how she was going to perform her stunt in the pitch black. I added a few candles in various locations to assist her. Scenes involving horses are accurate - I’ve been riding horses for more than three decades, and an author of historical stories must get the main form of transportation right. My dates jive, my details mesh. I go to great lengths to make sure that the minutiae are correct. Characters will sometimes get the details wrong - facts can get muddled over time, after all - but I know exactly what really happened, and the characters’ mistakes are entirely planned.
Readers have been thrilled with The Curse of Caledon and how all the little details came together to connect the first five books. Things that had looked like loose ends all interwove and made sense. All carefully orchestrated from the beginning.
So imagine my horror when I was researching the medieval torture instrument, the rack, and found a website that informed me that its first use was in 1447.
I was planning a significant role for the rack in 779. That wasn’t the worst of it, however, since Guardians isn’t published yet, and I can change anything. The worst was that King Kerrion mentioned using the rack in Dragon’s Fire in 1218—and that book was published.
Dismayed, I started figuring out how to make changes to the scene in Guardians that extensively involved the rack, intending to make at least one book right. In so doing, I discovered that the rack’s first use in Britain was in 1447. The device was used elsewhere long before that, even dating to BC usage.
Ah, relief. Although Caledon is Celtic and modeled after the UK and Ireland, I can still claim “Fantasy!” for the presence of the rack 700 years before its first use in Britain. After all, Alexander the Great used it to torture a bunch of pages who were planning his assassination, so the knowledge and use of this marvelous invention might easily have reached my fictional land within 1000 years after that. Happily, I kept my rack and tortured my characters to my heart’s content.
The rack was known as one of the most painful forms of medieval torture. I chose it because it was one of the less gruesome methods of torture that I researched.
I am an editor, as well as an author. I work for StoryShopUSA, and I do freelance editing for select clients. I self-edit my work because I can detach from my writing, look at it with a critical eye, and tell myself, “This is boring, unclear, wordy, or unnecessary. Fix it.”
However, every writer, regardless of experience, genre, training, or skill, needs editors/readers to give feedback on a work in progress. A writer cannot produce a quality book alone.
I have a set of Beta readers to critique my manuscripts. They each have different strengths. One points out historical errors: things and words that are out of place and time. Another is detail-oriented. She picks on mechanical faults and points out plot holes and makes suggestions to fix them. A third is very sure of what she likes and doesn’t, and has no qualms about telling me. All are avid readers of a variety of genres. One of them even reads in two languages.
My husband, Cameron, is my editorial assistant. He’s a computer engineer, and he thinks like a computer. He’s logical, quickly gets bored with “fluff,” and he notices everything I’ve done wrong. He reads the stories at the second draft stage, to pick on big errors before I spend a lot of time fine-tuning syntax and word choice. He then rereads them just before publication, to analyze and critique Every. Little. Thing. (He is a lucky man who can say that his wife wants him to point out all her mistakes!)
I appreciate the input of all my Betas, but even kind criticism can be hard to take. As a writer, you become very attached to your work. Sometimes I need a day or two to think through another’s comments before I can focus on rewriting the issues. (Cameron says I have to think about it long enough to start believing that the changes are my idea!)
It’s far easier to accept criticism on small points that are easy to fix than on bigger ones that take more time and effort to repair. After all, changing a repeated word is neither difficult nor painful. Rewriting a character, a scene, or a story thread that spans the book is another matter entirely.
My biggest editing issue is what I call The Curse of Author Omniscience. I know everything about the story I am developing, including what happened before the action started and what will happen after it ends. I know what everyone looks like, the minutiae of every setting, and what is going on in everyone’s thoughts. Many of the details in my head will never make it into the text.
But because I know everything, sometimes I assume that my reader does, too, and I leave out important details because I feel they're redundant. After all, I've been thinking about them for months. To me, they're ingrained and obvious.
When my husband read the second draft of my work in progress, Guardians of Caledon, he came to a place where my heroine started lying to her brother and thought, "Why won't she tell him the truth here? Maybe she's resentful for how he treated her...?"
Sure enough, she was, but the sentences that showed how she was feeling in response to her brother's behavior - the motivation for her lie - were several paragraphs further along. I had left my reader guessing. The details were in the wrong place.
Cam suggested that I move those sentences up to just before the heroine starts lying - and the scene took on a whole new level of energy.
In spite of my Editor Hat, I couldn't see the problem when I was revising. I know the story and the character too well. The Curse of Author Omniscience had struck.
Never underestimate the power of a reader who doesn't know everything to help improve a book. I’m very grateful for my Beta readers and the constructive criticism they offer.
A fellow writer recently asked me whether I thought the following quote from Willa Cather is accurate: Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.
The key word there is “basic.” Yes, your basic knowledge of how to form and punctuate a sentence and organize your ideas is acquired in the early grades.
However, in a broader sense, I disagree strongly with this statement. Good writing requires far more than the knowledge of how to form and punctuate a sentence and organize ideas. Age and experience are tremendous contributors to a writer’s skill and content. I believe that, generally, the older a writer gets, the better they become at their craft. We are all growing and changing and “becoming” as we live, and everything that touches our lives enriches us as writers.
I acquired a lot of college-level creative writing skills in my early twenties when I worked with my mentor for four years. He taught me concepts and principles for developing plots and characters that I never heard mentioned in grade school, and I’ve been improving on what I learned ever since.
I don’t write now the way I wrote 20 years ago. Nor do I currently write the way I will 20 years from now. In fact, I see a vast improvement in my writing skills and style from the release of Dragon’s Fire in 2017 to the writing of Books Six and Seven now.
Even the development of characters is seasoned with age. As a teen, I could not write characters over the age of 23 or male characters with any degree of believability. My outlook on life at that point was too narrow and inexperienced. My characters’ interactions have improved over the years as I gain more to draw on from my own interactions with others of all ages. I anticipate that everything about my writing will only strengthen as I continue to grow, learn, change, and practice.
Life enriches writers; experience molds and shapes them and enables them to tell stories in a richer, more fascinating way. Writers learn for their whole lives, and each learning experience adds a new shade of color or a new element of shadow to their storytelling.
Writing is not like gymnastics where you are finished competitively by the age of twenty. Nor is it like brain surgery where you have to get it right the first time. A good writer must move beyond the basic skills of putting words to paper in a logical order, and age and experience are essential for that. Fifteen is a wondrous age, but if it’s all you have to draw on as a writer, it will never, ever be enough.
I’ve started plotting Book Seven, which will begin filling in some of the “silent years” between Books One and Two. I collected the information that I had alluded to in the first five books and looked at it in astonishment.
I had way more material than I expected. I dropped a lot of hints in the first five books about the events between 1250 and 1330!
I started organizing all the information into a plot, but it came out as merely a recounting of events, not a story. It’s not enough to write that this happened, and then this happened, and then THIS happened. A plot is human experience in relation to events. A good plot needs emotion and conflict and character investment. It requires a problem, and steps to solve the problem, and a “wow, how are they going to get out of this” moment, and a climax.
Secondly, the story needs some sympathetic characters for the reader to cheer for. As I looked at the plot I was working on, I realized that none of the characters were likable. I had made my main characters people who had been mentioned in previous titles. They filled the roles I had prepared for them, but not one of them was going to appeal to readers as someone to root for. Even I didn’t like them. They were perfect villains, every last one of them, and the storyline was much too dark.
The plot didn’t have the level of action and excitement I like to maintain, either. Where the climax should have been, the story just deflated like an overstretched balloon. I was portraying events, but I wasn’t telling a story.
I had 15 pages of ideas and had experimented with numerous ways of arranging those ideas, and I wasn’t happy with any of them.
Back to the character drawing board. I desperately needed a likeable character, so I created a new heroine. It took a while to figure out exactly how she was going to fit into events that had never considered her existence before. I didn’t know who or what she was, or what relationships she would have, or how she would come into contact with my wonderful villains, whom I liked a whole lot more once I had someone good to counter them. So I let all the characters hold conversations in my head, until one morning while I was driving, the plot “clicked.” I was pretty excited! Suddenly, I knew who this new heroine was, and why the events of the story would matter to her. Ups and downs and human conflict and a thrilling climax appeared where once I had a “history-book” recounting of events.
Book Seven is going to contain a lot of new material in addition to the stuff I alluded to in earlier books, but that’s what makes it a story. The plot is developing quickly and will soon be at a point where I can start writing. That's exciting because two weeks ago, I had nothing but some unsatisfactory notes!
Now that I have characters with goals to achieve, who will experience the events that shape their lives with passion and feeling and finally come into such conflict with one another that everything explodes in an “edge-of-your-seat” conclusion, I can start another amazing journey. It’s the beginning of a story that will make readers say, “Wow, what a ride! I liked the hero, I hated the villain, I loved the story, and I can’t wait for the next one.”
Writing first drafts is incredibly fun. I get to tell myself a story, and no one else has to see it. I don’t have to fret about syntax or word choice, or even worry about story mechanics. If plot holes appear, or a character does something weird with no believable motivation, it’s perfectly okay. If I come to a rough spot, I can write something cliche and dumb. All those things can be fixed later.
Every time I finish a drafting or editing pass, I like to leave the story to “steep” for a few days before going back to work on it again. I feel like that time away from it allows me to look at it with fresher eyes when I dive in again.
Each first draft I create is different. Some are powerful and ready to go straight to editing after one or two read-throughs and a few minor adjustments. Others are weak, and I know it. They require lots of rewriting and structural fixes before they are anywhere close to good. My current work in progress, Guardians of Caledon, has a solid beginning for a first draft, weakens in the middle, and then rebounds at the end, though it still needs work throughout. It has a few character motivation and development issues. It contains some minor plot holes that I was aware of as I wrote, but I didn’t want to take the time to figure out how to fix them right then and lose the story’s momentum, so I merely noted the problems and kept writing.
All these things must be fixed, but not in the first draft. The first draft is just getting the story out. Fixing problems is for the second draft and the third. That’s when I go in and start to strengthen the plot, fix the holes, and fill in the gaps where motivation is required or unclear. I fact-check for historical accuracy. I improve dialogue and imagery, add color and depth to settings and characters, and generally start to make the story GREAT.
Fixing those issues might require several passes. I may change large chunks of the story in six or seven drafts, or I might be satisfied with the work by the time I complete the third draft. I’m rarely done in fewer than three.
That’s when editing starts. You might ask what the difference is between drafting and editing, and it’s a fine line. What I call second and third drafts and so on is also called substantive editing, which looks at the story as a whole for structure, organization, and logical consistency. I consider the story to be at the first editing stage when I am willing to let my Beta readers have it because I no longer find elements of it embarrassingly bad. There might still be small problems with plot or characterization, for which I will ask for input and ideas, but by the time I finish drafting and start editing, most of the story design flaws are fixed.
Editing looks at the story with a magnifying glass. Now I look for the best way to say things. I analyze whether I am using active or passive voice and use active whenever possible. I try to phrase things as clearly and directly as I can without losing the details and the shading. I read aloud to make sure that the dialogue flows when it’s spoken and that the narration isn’t awkward. Reading aloud also helps to catch repeated or overused words, and forces me to slow down and really SEE what I’m looking at.
Further editing passes look for spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors that might have been overlooked before now, while still fixing any previously targeted issues that may have slipped my notice. In all, I will usually go over a manuscript thoroughly at least twenty times before I declare it ready for publication, and then my husband and I go over it again as we format it for uploading to Amazon.
This doesn’t mean I will never make a mistake, or let something pass that should have been corrected, but it does mean I work very hard to make the books as perfect as I can for my readers. Writing, editing, and publishing a book is not a process that should be rushed. Quality takes time. I have learned to love every part of preparing the Dragon's Fire Series for publication, and I am very proud of each title.
My mother taught me to read when I was three. I may not have been entirely ready to learn, because I recall a lot of screaming (from me, not my mother.) Regardless, she never was one to give up, and before long, I could read.
I started devouring books. A book of bedtime stories a couple hundred pages thick with no pictures was one of my favorites. It was designed to be a read-aloud, but I read it to myself.
I started writing stories before I could spell. I was about six and a half years old when I produced my first masterpiece, “Stragling Snaks,” (Strangling Snakes.) I wrote stories at home frequently—nothing to do with school assignments—just for my own pleasure.
I excelled at creative writing in early elementary school. My second-grade teacher made a big “TV” out of a box, and the authors of the best stories of the week got to sit in the box to read their work to the class “on TV.” I was an almost-weekly occupant of the box.
By fourth grade, I loved writing horse stories. Teachers tried to get me to expand my repertoire, but by this point, my parents had become strict about the content I was allowed to produce, and while the rest of the class composed ghost tales and made up legends about Greek gods, I wrote what I was permitted to write—mostly horse stories. My fourth-grade teacher wrote in my report card that I had “no imagination.”
When I was eleven, I wrote my first novel on 150+ single-spaced pages of foolscap. I had found my writing passion. Throughout my teen years, I wrote several more books and attempted to have some of them published. One manuscript came close, but after some back and forth communication about it, it was rejected at a senior editors’ meeting.
I kept writing. All of my first drafts were written entirely by hand. Thousands of pages. I’m left-handed, so I always had a blue ink smear on the baby finger of my left hand that I could never entirely wash off.
After I got married, I wrote a novel that checked in at well over 1000 pages. I submitted it to publishers, and that’s how I met my mentor, who I am still working with at StoryShopUSA.
John saw the raw potential in me and trained me to write well. He taught me how to take a story idea and flesh it out using active voice, engaging the reader’s senses so that the words jumped off the page like living things. He taught me how to hook a reader and how to write realistic dialogue. We worked on developing plotlines and using plot gimmicks and plot plants to give readers “wow!” moments. I worked one-on-one with him for about four years, produced a number of different titles, and learned a great deal.
I took a hiatus from writing in 2002, just before the birth of my second child. I couldn’t keep up, couldn’t find the quiet focus time, couldn’t justify the hours of selfishness required to produce books. Some people manage to write with small children, and my hat is off to them. I don’t know how they do it.
Fourteen years later, in 2016, a story started teasing me. It played in my head for about seven months while I determined NOT to write it down. I knew how stories consumed me once I started them. My youngest child was now almost ten, my oldest, seventeen. I still felt that I didn’t have time for writing amid all my other responsibilities. But the story won, and on a rainy evening at the end of July, I sat down and started typing what I was sure would be nothing more than 70 pages of silly romance.
Two and a half years after starting that story, I published the fifth in my series, completing the adventure of the Dragon’s Fire that my silly romance had grown into. And I’m still writing. There are so many more stories to tell. When I finish telling stories about Caledon, there will be something new to write. All my life, when I’ve finished a book or a series, I’ve thought, “I can’t do any better than that.” Then I think of something new, and away I go with it, and it’s better than before because age and experience generally improve writers.
I don’t regret taking 14 years off for my young family, but I’m glad that I’m making time to write now. Caledon has increased my confidence, taught me many valuable lessons about myself, and improved me as a writer and an editor. And I’m loving every minute.
Sometimes I only get an hour a day to write. Sometimes I get no time at all. But making time to do what I love is so important. I’ve found a piece of me that was missing for 14 years, and I’m not going back.
Check out my interview with blogger Fiona Mcvie! https://wp.me/p3uv2y-75n