Monday, October 05, 2009

Painting Oneself Into a Corner

Sometimes, as writers, we paint ourselves into a bit of a corner. I found myself in that position while jotting down notes for Theo Four. As I began my research for the setting—Old Cairo and Luxor—I felt a lot like a bored tourist as I tried to wrap my mind around the layout of the cities (in 1907, no less) and the various societal elements at play. I was uninspired. Nothing was getting my blood running, and I really need that to happen. If it feels boring and flat for me, it most certainly will for the reader.

However, due to the events I had put in play in Book Three, Theo HAS to go to Egypt for this book. But the setting just wasn’t working for me, it wasn’t feeding the story in the way setting needs to. So I’m panicking, stuck in Egypt with no way out, but not loving being there. That’s the corner I’d painted myself into.

A bit of a disaster, really.

So I picked up my pen and notebook and began journaling on the setting. In doing so, I became aware of a couple of things. One, I needed to give myself permission to build my world of 1907 Egypt in a way that served my story rather than historical accuracy. Every writer who writes a story that takes place in New York writes about a slightly different New York—one created or interpreted for their fictional needs. I needed to remember that.

Secondly, and more importantly, I needed to remember to see Egypt through Theo’s eyes—not a dusty 1907 British traveler, but Theo herself. What filters does she have in place as she travels through Egypt?

Well, for one, she’s looking for signs of the Serpents of Chaos everywhere. She is also almost painfully aware of the hum and throb of all the magic in the air, emanating off artifacts large and small. She is also nearly beside herself with excitement at being back in Egypt on a real live dig with her parents. Which is overshadowed by the promise she’s made to someone and the reason she finagled herself along on her trip.

Boom. Remembering that, putting those filters on as I tried to establish the setting for the book, totally made everything come alive again. Ho hum buildings and dusty streets teemed with lurking shadows and haunting magic (and yeah, Theo’s a little melodramatic...) Everyone Theo saw held the possibility of being a Serpent of Chaos, a Chosen Keeper, or an Eye of Horus. (No, you won’t find out what that is until Book Three.) Truly, it was like looking through a pair of binoculars and twisting that little thingey in the middle so that everything came into sharp focus. Very happy moment.

And then, finally, the thing I always wait for began to happen. Bits and snippets of the “movie” of the book began playing in my head and ideas began forming. It became clear to me that I need to spend the majority of the next two weeks building the “set” of this book. Creating the inherent conflicts that the streets of Cairo and Luxor, the nearby temples, the parents’ dig, the various antiquities and consul offices will provide. And I need to all of that with Theo’s filters firmly in place.

Sometimes I think that nearly every problem we run into in writing can be solved through character—we just have to dig deep enough.


Katy Cooper said...

You're so, so, so wise. (I know you'll argue with that, but you are.)

Not only can you figure this stuff out, but you can articulate it in such a way that I get a "take away" that will make my work stronger.

Thank you for being so willing to share.

story_weaver said...


Greek Girl said...

And I thought you couldn't help me anymore.

Robin L said...

Ha Katy! You know me well. However, I am thrilled whenever my bumbling helps anyone else!

That goes for you, too, Story Weaver and Greek Girl.