- What comes first when developing a story—characters, setting, plot?
The story seems to come to me as a vague notion to start. An impression. The Sorcerer’s Bane (my first book and book 1 of The Seven Words) started out one afternoon in August 2015. After coming home from meeting with a couple neighbors who encouraged me to write, I sat down at my laptop and typed a couple sentences: “Travis Illk was a seasoned world skipper. He had traveled the skipping lines—those mysterious wormholes between the seven planets of the Ochen system—into and out of all seven worlds for the better part of forty years.” Those few words set my world framework (seven worlds, all distinct, joined by wormholes). They also set Travis up as the kidnapper who would work for the demon-possessed sorcerer, Sigmund. At that point, I wrote the prophecy that would set the tone for all four books in the series. I followed my nose. It was like the story already existed as a unified whole and I just needed to dig it out of my brain. As I moved forward through the story, more was revealed and at about the half-way point, the final pieces of the puzzle fell together in my mind. I know this is rather a disorganized way to go about writing, but it works for me.
The characters seemed to write themselves. At one point, a character I had envisioned as part of my protagonist’s support group turned out to be the exact opposite, a major part of the enemy’s team. I didn’t know it until I started typing. The first words out of his mouth were so negative. I just let him go in that direction.
- What are some unique challenges to writing speculative fiction?
One challenge was placing the story in a world that is relatable while still creating a unique universe. I coined a couple words but kept that to a minimum to imply ‘different’, then used those terms in ways that would make them easily understood.
Another unique challenge for me as a Christian was to remain faithful to the bible while presenting Christian truths without mentioning God, Jesus, or the Bible. My protagonist is a chosen Light Bringer. The One (God) speaks to him. It was important to me that I portray the One as a personal being who is not silent. That he speaks and acts within the worlds of Ochen, and that needed to flow out of the story itself, so it didn’t feel forced or phony.
Christian speculative fiction is a small niche market, but it’s growing. The challenge is to increase this market by helping others to understand that speculative fiction can be a viable way to weave Christian truths into an exciting story. People are touched by stories; they are reached on a visceral level non-fiction can’t reach. Non-fiction has a role, and it’s vital to the Christian life, but fantastical stories can create memories in ways non-fiction can’t.
- What do you do to renew your inspiration when it is running low?
First, prayer. Every day. Writing is a gift from God and I thank him for that daily. I ask for guidance continually. When I’m going to sleep, especially if I’m uncertain what direction to move in my story, I pray for inspiration to come to me while I’m asleep.
Take a break and go for a walk. It’s not unusual for words or images to come to me when I’m out walking my dog. I always have my phone handy and write in Notes often.
Reading books. I read a range of genres from non-fiction and philosophy to classics to speculative fiction. But I read most in Christian speculative fiction because it speaks to me and stimulates my imagination.
- What advice would you give to someone who wants to write speculative fiction?
Read voraciously in your genre (especially authors who have a reputation for writing well). Speculative fiction has so many sub-genres it’s important to understand the differences between them. For example: Space Opera has a whole different feel and voice than dystopian. Fairy tale re-writes are very popular now, but you need to understand the genre and how to appropriately switch up the story to make it fly. Magical realism is a whole other field because it must be set in the world as we know it but with subtle changes that must be believable even if fantastical.
Join an online group like Realm Makers Consortium. Friend others who are writing speculative fiction. Go to conferences. Join a critique group. I’ve tried some of the larger groups online and if that works for you, use the experience. I know others who have found great support that way. For me personally, meeting regularly with just a few people is more productive.
Let your imagination soar. Write fast and furious; allow your story time to take off and grow. When it’s written, then take the time to edit slowly and carefully. Trying to edit while writing can plunge you into a never-ending cycle of re-writing without moving forward.
And—last but certainly not least—have fun with it. Take joy in the process of creation.
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Some sneak peek quotes from The Light Unbounded:
My beloved servant who was lost and found will be tested. Though light is shrouded and severed spirit wandering, he will find rest in my truth, and I will be his shelter in the tempest. For the darkness that claims victory is already defeated. I will guide his steps by the least of lights until the three are found and the cup of wrath is full. Then the true heart will be known by the bond I have made and the broken made whole once again.
* * *
Something in Theodor had broken when Rowena collapsed. Thorvin had seen it. And now he watched, tension tying his stomach in knots, as his old friend struggled to find balance between his duties as king and his concern for his beloved wife. It was like the king was walking a slippery tightrope and with every step, he seemed to find it harder to cope. Holding audiences, his mind would drift. After the first day, Thorvin agreed to stay by Theodor’s side, allegedly as his bodyguard. In fact, he was there to help keep the king focused and functioning.
A few days later, Theodor asked Thorvin to take a more active role, and, within hours, Thorvin found himself sitting alongside the king as his new counselor and spokesperson. If Danton, Theodor’s chief advisor, had any qualms about the appointment, he kept them to himself. But, from time to time, Thorvin would catch a grimace of disgust on the man’s face. Over the next week, the fog that surrounded Theodor grew thicker, his attention repeatedly diverted from his duties as king to concern over Rowena’s unchanging condition.
* * *
Numb and beyond himself, Rayne huddled at the bottom of the rocky incline he had tumbled down last night. In the rain and darkness, he lost his footing when the muddy ground gave out beneath him and slipped down to land partly in the stream at the bottom. Now he shivered, wet and cold from the night chill. The ankle he had twisted in his fall throbbed in time with his heart beat. And he cried.
All that had gone before, all he survived, hadn’t prepared him for the despair now flooding him. The faith and determination that sustained him when he left the cottage behind five days ago were gone; washed away in the rain of the last three days, forsaken somewhere in the trackless wilderness surrounding him. Lost, alone, and numb, he refused to pray. He had trusted the One and look where it had gotten him. Maybe he should have given in to Sigmund years ago. Maybe if he had, he would at least still be himself. But deep down, Rayne knew; that too was just an illusion. Whatever he would have become, that person would not have been him anymore than this old man body was him now.
Sometime during the last five days, he lost himself; physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Rayne was nothing more than a shadow. He stopped crying, spent, beyond tears, and allowed the mind-numbing nothingness to claim him once again. He was reduced to the reality that he had been nothing more than a disposable pawn in a game of Kings and Swords between Sigmund and the One. If he wasn’t so past feeling, he would laugh at the absurdity of it all.
* * *
Emerging from beneath the last of the Sentinel trees, Rayne gasped as his senses were bombarded with sights and smells beyond anything he could have imagined. It was as though he had stepped into another realm of existence, into a pool of living air that bathed him in awareness. Am I still on Nemora? Light was clearer, brighter, and yet, at the same time, ethereal. A soft cool breeze caressed his face. Or is it warm? He couldn’t be certain. And yet, it felt perfect. The magic here—no, not magic—energy—energy impregnated the air with power, vibrating and—singing? Yes, the air was singing. But he couldn’t hear it with his ears. He felt it in his core. He was alive. Even the old man body thrummed to the power of the Source coursing through him.
A cliff face rose before him, a single great gray rock with blue veining soaring to a height of more than forty feet. Two of the giant blue-leaved trees flanked the precipice, towering above it. At about shoulder height, a horizontal crack split the rock creating a table-like shelf. The crevice narrowed as it wound around the side of the crag, climbing upward. Water flowed from the fissure, trailing the split and glistening as it splashed down, wetting the stone face. Droplets of the liquid danced in the air catching the light and blooming into colors beyond Rayne’s comprehension, colors so intense he thought he would weep. His heart soared with the wonder of it all. Even trapped in the old-man body, he felt more alive than he had ever felt. Approaching through the soft, vibrant air, he saw the familiar satchel.
When he reached the cliff face, the hair on his neck and arms stood at attention in response to the energy flowing from it. Leaning his staff next to the ledge, he stood for a few minutes just breathing, allowing the experience to hold him. Then, using the rock for stability, he reached into the crack and pulled the sack to him.
* * *
Terev settled until perfectly still, its color restored. With what seemed like a deep inhalation, the tree pulled magic energy from within the cavern into itself, then burst into a brilliant red glow as if on fire, but not one leaf was burning. Each leaf and bud blazed from within, casting red-hued light through the cavern.
As the light reached the unconscious old man, Badr’s eyes widened. Coruscating light in shades of gold and blue began rising in streams from the body, blending and dancing with the tree’s red light.
Badr fell to his knees watching the lights blend into rainbows of splashing brilliance. The lights danced for several minutes in their combined glory. Colors flashed and faded only to flash again in new combinations. Beauty beyond beauty. Then the light began descending, merging into streams that poured into the old body lying asleep and unaware before Badr. Just as the last of the combined light entered the body, a blinding flash shot down from the sun, through the crystal above, turning the body into a transparent, shimmering form. And for a brief instant, Badr saw the heart-wrenching beauty of the spirit trapped within.
The voice of the One echoed through the chamber. Know that you have glimpsed the true form of my beloved Light Bringer. Even broken and lost he has clung to me and trusted. Honor him as he has honored me.
* * *
Out of the corner of his eye Rayne caught the movement of something not quite solid. Something not right. His spirit cried out a warning. It was the demon that had been Sigmund, now bodiless, nothing more than an animated shadow, moving around him as though it was stalking him. He watched fascinated as the disembodied demon circled, and he suddenly realized what it was after. The King’s Sword.
It lunged for the ancient weapon, but Rayne’s reflexes were quicker. In the blink of an eye Rayne’s hand was on the sword. In that instant it exploded into a fire of sparkling light so intense, the area surrounding him was lit as if by a bolt of lightning. Rayne ducked his head, closing his eyes. The demon screamed, springing away from Rayne and the blinding light. Blinking his eyes open, Rayne tracked its movement and watched in horror as the thing wormed into someone’s back. The body shuddered for a moment then turned to face Rayne. Brayden.
They were finally one, the demon and Brayden. Their spirits melding into an amalgam of evil desire. Looking into its eyes, Rayne knew the thing that was Sigmund and Brayden now existed for one purpose, to stop the One’s chosen Light Bringer and destroy the light.