Fantasy Writing Workshop

I recently returned from Oxford, England where I attended a 7-day Fantasy Writing Workshop led by David Farland. It was a fantastic trip in many ways including the sights, the sounds, the food and the people. I met many warm, generous people on this trip most especially my fellows writers in our class and on our field trips in and around Oxford.

A bit of trivia: the name Oxford is a contraction of the original Saxon name Oxen-ford.

Our first outing together was to the Bodleian Library’s J.R.R. Tolkien exhibit. Couldn’t take any pictures inside, but here’s the link: https://tolkien.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/

And here’s a shot of the outside of the museum.

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The Weston Library, part of the Bodleian Library.

Tolkien truly was a multi-talented individual and when you see his watercolors, sketches, calligraphy and samples of his elvish language, you can easily see why his books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, were so beautifully written.

The next day we all piled into a mini-van and a small car and drove to Stonehenge. Yes, it is as a amazing as it sounds, even if it is super windy and packed with tourists.

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Stonehenge.

 

I spent the majority of my class and writing free time wandering around the city. It really is an amazing place, Oxford. Where ancient and modern co-exist in perfect harmony.

 

We all spent most of our time either in class sharing our work for critique’s, listening to Dave’s lectures, and of course, working on writing assignments. If you haven’t taken a class with Dave Farland, you really should. He’s a very successful author best known for his Runelord’s series, but is well known for many other writing accomplishments including acting as a judge for the Writer’s of the Future contest. He spends most of his time giving live workshops, but you can work through his online courses on your own. You can find the info here: https://mystorydoctor.com/

On my second the last day in Oxford I took the tour at the Oxford Castle and Prison. Originally a motte-and-bailey castle built by the Saxons (who ruled England about 500AD-1000AD), then rebuilt by the Normans, the castle officially became a prison in the 17th century. Up until recently, it was believed that St. George’s Tower was built by the Norman Baron Robert O’Dilly in 1071. But, recent archaeology has thrown that theory into question. It is now believed more likely that the tower was built by the Saxons and the Baron simply incorporated it into his design. As you can probably tell, the castle was probably my favorite part of my visit.

 

Overall, it was an amazing trip and this blog post only covers a small fraction of the memories and experiences I had while there. But, I hope it’s enough to inspire you to make your own journey someday.

SNEAK PEEK: Ch. 1 of The Magic We Seek

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Gemma Leighton sat at her desk staring out the window with her chin resting in one hand while the other hand clutched a stack of bills. Her eyes didn’t see the newly planted native grasses dotting the quarter acre landscape between the circular driveway and the wrought iron front gates. She didn’t see the men working to restore the old stone fountain or her cousin Maddie frolicking with her 150-pound black Newfoundland puppy. And, she didn’t see the dark clouds moving in from the south bringing another batch of February rain their way.

All Gemma could see was an endless stack of bills and the dwindling numbers in her bank account. This was a problem she had been struggling with since the day she had inherited her adopted grandparent’s estate. Why Myrtle Bosworth had chosen to leave everything to a granddaughter, she had little affection for was a question Gemma still hadn’t answered. She did suspect, however, that it had something to do with the fact that most of the Bosworth fortune was gone.

Whether Myrtle was playing an awful joke on Gemma or the old woman honestly thought Gemma was capable of saving the 187-year-old mansion with its 210 acres of land, she didn’t know. All she did know was that they were barely getting by even with the sale of multiple pieces of artwork and antiques. It didn’t help that many of the items had sold for much less than their appraised value, or as she was quickly learning, that at least half of the valuables in the mansion were either forgeries or not as valuable as the Bosworth’s claimed they were.

Gemma sighed and stared at the latest statement from the auction house. The current value of the last lot was 40% less than what she expected. So much for the new furnace she had hoped to install. Fortunately, warmer weather was on the way and with any luck at all she might raise enough to at least start restoring the formal gardens behind the mansion.

“Aah! Why do I bother?” For the millionth time she asked herself why she was putting herself through this torture. She paced around her sitting room office trying to ignore the fading wallpaper, the burnt-out bulbs in the electric chandelier, the worn rugs. Why should she care about the vaunted Bosworth legacy anyway? She wasn’t even a true Bosworth. She’d been adopted by Charles and Myrtle’s daughter Eloise and her husband Randall.

Gemma yanked open the door of the sitting room and stepped into the large bedroom that had once belonged to Meribelle Bosworth, the first mistress of Merivale.

A large black raven perched on the back of a Queen Anne chair squawked and flapped his wings. “Must you do that? I was sleeping.”

“Sorry, Breknell.” When the raven had first started hanging around Gemma believed he was an ordinary raven that someone had tamed. At the time, she had called him Chester, but it wasn’t long before she learned his true name was Breknell and that like several other residents of Merivale Mansion he was a magical being.

Billy the Hob was putting a fresh log on the fire by floating it from the stack on the side of the fireplace onto the hot coals. “Hello, Miss Gemma.” He tried to adjust the log using a metal poker that was almost as long as he was tall. At two-and-a-half feet, Billy was slightly taller than the average Hob but he was still no match for the metal rod he was wielding. It caught on the brick surround shoving the round end into his belly knocking the wind out of him and sending him teetering backward.

Gemma rushed forward and caught Billy and the poker just as the Hob was about to fall over. She took the poker out of his hands and gave Breknell, who was snickering, a look of disapproval.

“Thanks you, Miss,” Billy said as he straightened his brown cap and tunic.

“You’re welcome, but next time use your magic.” She smiled at him and put the poker back in its stand.

“Yes, Miss.”

She pulled her sweater tight around her waist and plopped down onto the sofa watching Billy work. This was the real reason she fought so hard to keep the mansion going. She did it for the magical beings who had been living at Merivale since the mansion was first built. The Sprites had come first and were soon followed by the Hobs and Mrs. Landy. She didn’t know how long Breknell had been around. He refused to reveal his age.

“Well, now that I am awake, I think it is time to go hunting.” Breknell stretched his wings and glided from the chair to the French doors that opened onto a semi-circular balcony. One wing morphed into a hand that lowered the door handle and pulled it open enough for the raven the exit. The door snapped shut behind him.

“I hate when he does that. It’s so creepy looking.” Gemma faked a shiver.

Billy giggled. “I don’t likes it either. Is there something I can bring Miss?”

“No, thanks.” She checked her watch. “I think I’ll go down to the kitchen for lunch.” Gemma knew she’d been holed up in her room for too long. If she didn’t make an appearance soon her cousin Maddie would come looking for her.

“Very good, Miss.” Billy toddled off on his long thin legs and walked through the wooden door leading to the hallway as if it weren’t there.

Gemma stared at the flames trying to reconcile the million and one thoughts fighting for attention in her brain. After a few minutes she gave up and wandered out of her room into the wide hallway beyond. She was passing the wrought iron railing that overlooked the first floor atrium when a flash of bright light caught her eye.

She leaned over the railing and blinked. The light she had seen was emanating from a pure white horse. No, not a horse. A unicorn. It whinnied and shook its head causing its silvery mane to ripple like an ocean wave. She squeezed her eyes shut. It couldn’t be. She must be imagining it.

She opened her eyes again. It was still there nibbling on blades of grass that surrounded Meribelle’s spring. “Mrs. Landy.”

The tall housekeeper shimmered into existence moments later. “Yes, Miss. What can I—oh, my.”

“Is that what I think it is?” Gemma pointed at the unicorn.

“Yes, Miss. It is a unicorn.”

“Where did it come from? How did it get here?” The unicorn was beautiful and all but she and Maddie were the only people who knew about Merivale’s magical secrets. How was she going to hide a unicorn from Al and all the other people who came to the mansion?

“I will take care of it, Miss,” said Mrs. Landy.

“How? It may be a unicorn but it’s also a horse. We can’t have a horse living in the mansion.”

“No, Miss. He will not remain in the mansion.” As always, Mrs. Landy’s hands were clasped over her starched white apron.

“He? I thought unicorns were female.” Gemma stared at the creature who was now drinking from the spring.

“They are both male and female. Males have larger horns. Shall I tend to him now?” Mrs. Landy’s tone was polite but Gemma could hear the tinge of impatience in her words.

“What are you going to do with him?”

“I will take him to the forest, Miss.” Mrs. Landy smiled down at Gemma. “There are… others there who will care for him.”

“Others? What others?” And why was she just hearing about this now?

“Fauns and Elves primarily.”

Gemma found herself staring into space as if she could see through the stone walls of the mansion into the forest. “Have they always been there?”

“No. They have appeared gradually over the last four decades.” Mrs. Landy kept her eyes focused on the unicorn.

“But… how? How have they appeared and why?” Gemma was trying to keep her attention focused on Mrs. Landy but found she couldn’t help glancing at the unicorn.

“As we all have, Miss.” With that the housekeeper shimmered and vanished reappearing next to the unicorn. Moments later both the unicorn and Mrs. Landy were gone leaving Gemma to gape at the now vacant spot.

“As we all have. What kind of answer is that?” Gemma shook her head frustrated once again by Mrs. Landy’s reticent nature. The cheerful bubbling of the spring’s waters drew her attention. She knew Meribelle Bosworth had used magic to call the Sprite’s out of the spring. She recalled the scene the ancient mirror in her room had shown her. Meribelle was dressed in a gauzy white dressing gown sitting next to the spring and singing until dozens of bluish white balls of light emerged from the roiling waters of the spring.

Gemma gazed at the ring on her finger. At the end of the dance the Sprites had gifted Meribelle with the milky white stone that she had set into a silver band. Somehow this stone had made Meribelle and Gemma the Mistress or leader of the Sprites and those magical beings who joined them. More important to Gemma the ring that refused to come off her finger had made her responsible for the safety and well-being of the magical beings now in her care. This was their home; a place where they could live in peace without fear of being hunted by frightened and unbelieving humans.

And now she had to worry about a unicorn living in the forest with a bunch of fauns and elves. How had they gotten here? Was someone secretly calling these creatures out of the spring?

Gemma spun on her heel and hurried back to her room. She locked the door behind her and stood before the large antique mirror with its gilded frame. “Mirror, show me how the unicorn got into the atrium.”

The mottled surface of the mirror rippled like a pebble thrown into a still pond. Seconds later the reflection of the atrium and spring appeared. The waters of the small pool at the base of the spring bubbled and churned shining with a bright white light. A silver white horn pierced the surface and rose revealing the unicorn’s head, neck and body. Gemma scanned the area surrounding the spring. There was no sign of any other living thing.

“Thank you, Mirror.” As the image disappeared the mirror returned to its resting state. Gemma wandered over to the sofa and sat staring at the red and yellow flames in the fireplace.

This was not good. She couldn’t have creatures popping up out of the spring any old time. How could she possibly keep Merivale’s secrets secret knowing some strange creature could appear at any time? The Hobs could become invisible at will and the Sprites avoided humans mainly because they didn’t like them. Mrs. Landy looked human and was accustomed to behaving like one. And Breknell, despite his love for inane chit-chat knew when to keep his mouth shut and act like a bird. But, a unicorn? Gemma could imagine the tabloid headlines.

It wasn’t that she minded having them around, she didn’t. She honestly cared for all of them. Even the Sprites who seemed to spend their days hatching up new ways to irritate her. She grinned at the thought of some of their antics that really were funny at times.

Gemma’s cell phone rang, and she knew without looking that it was her cousin Maddie. “Hey, Mads. What’s up?” She listened as Maddie relayed her breathless and slightly frantic account of the Sprite’s latest prank. “They did what? Never mind. I’ll be right down.”

The Magic We Seek is available at Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Kobo and Apple iBooks. 

Proud to be Indie

I’ve been seeing a lot of advice lately about how to hide a writer’s indie publishing status. Things like buy your own ISBN numbers (not such a bad idea if you can afford it), start your own publishing company, use IngramSpark for the print version, etc. The logic behind the advice is if you want your book to make it into bookstores, or be a bestseller you have to look like you’ve been traditionally published.
 
The thing is, it sounds a whole lot like these people are ashamed of being Independently published. I’m not. I made a considered choice to publish indie. I didn’t bother sending my manuscripts to traditional publishers or agents. Not because I think my work isn’t good enough, but because I want to keep more of profits I earn instead of giving some big company 75%. Plus, I in my early 60’s and I’d rather spend my time writing the best books I can than frantically shopping around for agents and publishers.
I tried doing that early in my writing career. I wrote short stories and dutifully submitted them to various magazines then waited for replies. Some of them were encouraging. Some of them never came and some of them were outright rejections. (I did manage to get one story published in a magazine with a readership of about 5 people. For my payment I got copies of the poorly printed magazine.) It was this experience, the increased popularity of self-publishing and the well established fact that I’m lousy at marketing and salesmanship that led me to choose Independent Publishing.
I know what you’re thinking. That as an self-published author sales and marketing skills are even more important. And you’d be right. But the truth is, I’m not that fussed about it. I honestly don’t care if my friends and family are the only people who buy and read my books. I wrote them. I put them out there. Some people read them and liked them. I’m a happy woman. Maybe when I have more books out there in the marketplace more people will buy and read my stories. That’s how some indie authors do it. Sounds good to me.
Maybe I’m lazy. Maybe it’s my age. Maybe it’s because I don’t really need the money. Or, maybe it’s my shy and introverted temperament that dampens my ambitions. Most likely it’s all of the above, but it doesn’t matter. This is the kind of writer I want to be and self-publishing allows me to be just that. Younger more ambitious authors will absorb all the advice the Internet has to offer and market their socks off. They will hit bestseller status and be able to make a decent living as writers and I am sincerely happy for them.
And that’s why I’m proud as hell to be an Indie Author. Self-publishing opens up a world of opportunity for writers of all types. We are free to write when and how and what we want and we can create marketing platforms as unique as we are at any level we are comfortable with. We are free to choose.
By the way, you can find me most days hanging out on Twitter @DWKavanaugh, or on Facebook at dwkavanaugh. You can also find my books, The Demons We Cherish and The Magic We Seek on Amazon.

Efficiency

After two months of drenching rains, falling trees, landslides, power outages and days long forced confinement life is slowly regaining a sense of normalcy. In my case that means predictable routine. For instance, it’s Sunday so, predictably, my husband is sitting in the living room watching bad movies. He loves movies, and so do I, but he’ll watch any movie, no matter how awful, while I tend to be more selective. Even he admits I’m better at picking out movies to watch than he is.

When my husband and I first started dating one of the first things he noticed about me was my love of ritual as he called it. I hadn’t thought about it quite that way before, but when I did I had to laugh. Properly defined ritual refers to religious ceremonies, but if I’m honest, I have to admit that I adhere to my daily/weekly/monthly routines with a near religious devotion.

When I was a kid I saw a movie called Cheaper by the Dozen starring Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy. In this early version of the story the father, Frank Gilbreth, Jr. was a time-motion study and efficiency expert. I watched this movie several times over the years because I was fascinated by the idea of applying his principles of efficiency to every day life. I wanted to be an efficiency expert when I grew up.

Officially, I’m a high school graduate with some community college credits, but no degree. I could never be hired as an efficiency expert. But, the desire to conduct both my personal and business life with the greatest efficiency has never left me. And I think, in my amateurish way, I’ve done all right. Almost every supervisor I’ve ever worked with has complimented my efficiency. I get things done in half the time with 98% accuracy.

Of course, there are downsides to this need for predictable routine and efficiency. For one thing, I don’t have a spontaneous bone in my body, which often drives my husband nuts. He’s the opposite, you see. It takes a week of thoughtful planning before I pack my suitcase. He packs 5 minutes before we leave. He loves last minute invitations to a party, or other event. I need at least a week to decide if the event while fit into my schedule. Okay, I can do it in a day, but I prefer more time.

It also means that in writing and reading and everyday communications I get annoyed with extraneous verbiage. Why say in 20 words what can easily be said in 10? If I ask you what time it is, please don’t tell me how to build a clock.

I also don’t like books that are heavy on description. It’s not efficient. Not for me as a reader or as a writer. I know what a tapestry rug looks like. Please don’t describe it’s weft and warp. Do you really need to describe every stick of furniture in the room the protagonist just entered? For the third time? I ran across this once. The author insisted on describing an antique stuffed room, in detail, every time someone walked into it. After reading about the cherry wood Chippendale desk for the third time, I tossed the book across the room. And I’ve never picked up another of that author’s books since.

Description is necessary. Our characters can’t be floating around in empty space. But, know when to stop. And know what readers prefer in the genre you are writing in. If you write commercial mainstream fiction with stories based in the modern world then minimal to medium amounts of description are all that’s needed. If you write fantasy or science fiction then you need more description. But, that’s not a license to go crazy. Even in these genres you will most likely include settings and items that are familiar to us all. You may have trees with pink leaves and green flowers, but they are still leaves and flowers. Describe in depth only those things that can’t be easily visualized by your readers.

On the other hand, there are people out there who love description. Lots and lots of description. And that’s okay because there are writers who love filling their books with loads of it. To each his own.

For me, a person who loves efficiency, less is more.

 

More Storms

And not just weather related ones. There’s a political storm underway in this country right now. Smarter people than me can comment of the nuances of the political world. I want to talk about neighbors.

Political tags – such as royalist, communist, democrat, populist, fascist, liberal, conservative, and so forth – are never basic criteria. The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire. —Robert A. Heinlein

Right now, in my neck of the woods, nature is doing the controlling. Another week of rainy weather brought down a few tons of earth, rocks and a few trees.

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Photo courtesy of Jessi & Bryce, Next Door Lompico.

The county works department has been scratching their collectives heads over this one for a couple of days now. As of this morning they estimate it will take them until Friday (4 days away) to clear one lane.

This is the main road we use to get to town. What this means for me is that I’ll be housebound until it’s open again. There’s a detour, but it’s a one lane road that isn’t in very good shape because of the increased traffic and damage from all the storms. This road also runs through a number of privately owned properties making the extra traffic difficult for those who live there. Which is why I’m staying put. Out of respect for my neighbors.

Neighbors are important in this small mountain community. My husband and I moved here because we don’t want to live in “the city.” We both grew up in heavily populated urban areas and we both grew to hate that way of life. So, as soon as we had the chance, we high tailed it out of there and we’ve enjoyed the freedom living in small rural areas has given us. And I’ve learned the benefit’s of loving my neighbors even when they irritate me.

Granted, we’ve had to deal with the effects of nature’s rage in ways “city folks” don’t and it has been challenging, but if you’re paying attention, there’s a lot to learn from this way of life. One big lesson is that if we don’t work together, look out for each other, we’re going to spend a lot of time sitting alone in the dark.

I’ve lived in cities for a big portion of my life and spent most of that time living in apartments. If we ever had a problem with our neighbors we called the landlord or the police, as the case may be. At school I was taught that if I had a problem with a fellow student, go to the teacher. At work, if I had a problem with a co-worker the rule was to either talk to my boss or HR. I can’t remember ever being told to talk to the person and work things out between us. This is the type of distrust and xenophobia that urban areas instill in its citizens.

It’s a whole different mindset here in Lompico. In this area where we are often isolated from the world, we can’t depend on government agencies or bosses or landlords. Solving problems is up to us.

In the summer our neighbors like to party and play loud music. I’m not the partying type. I’m an introvert who likes quiet and being left alone to do my thing. So, in situations like these I have choice. I can get angry, make a big fuss and demand that they stop making such a racket, or I can close my windows on that side of the house. I choose to close my windows.

Why? Because we’ve taken the time to get to know our neighbors and we’ve become friends despite our differences. Turns out, they’re wonderful, kind people who, if I asked them, would shut the music down in a heartbeat. And when the lights go out they let us hook into their generator so that we can be comfortable until the power is restored.

There is also a group of residents who started a private email forum called Next Door Lompico. During this last series of storms every member posted notices about power failures, downed trees, garbage collection, the landslide, and anything else helpful you can think of. I’ve never met these people, but I will never forget their kindness.

The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire.

I’ve heard it said that it comes down to people who live in large cities where, out of necessity, everything and everyone is controlled by laws and ordinances vs. people who live in small towns and rural areas where freedom and independence are more highly valued. Based on the red and blue map from this last election, I think they may have a point.

Having lived in both worlds, I think the real problem with our country right now is that we’ve lost the ability to work together as a community. At one time we knew how to do that, but over the years, as the country has grown, that way of life lost favor. I’m not even going to speculate on the why’s, but I do think that until we get that back, until we learn how to talk and listen and work together we’re going to remain trapped under this landslide of division and hatred that has overtaken the country.

 

 

Storm Warnings

We live in a little cabin in the Santa Cruz mountains. As I sit here typing a gust of wind has rushed through the trees that surround our house. Normally, watching the tree tops dance and sway would be nothing more than an interesting diversion. A sensory image to file away for later use. But, this is day 6 of a storm that has added inches of rain to soil still saturated by two storms that passed through just a week earlier. Gusty winds mean more fallen trees and a good chance of more power failures.

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But, we’ve been lucky. In other parts of California flooding has forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes. Mudslides and downed trees have closed many roads and a few highways. Yosemite closed due to flooding. And a beloved landmark was destroyed.

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California’s Tunnel Tree, before and after

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So, while we’ve had to “rough it” a bit through an extended power outage and heavy rain and road closures trapped us in our home for three days, we’ve done all right. We’ve kept warm and dry in our little cabin. I stocked up on food and water before the worst of it hit and we were able to cook and boil water thanks to our gas stove. We also have wonderful neighbors who let us hook up to their generator. This gave us enough power to keep the refrigerator, cable, phone and internet on. Without that we would have had no idea what was going on in the outside world. Internet access was limited by the fact that there was no power to my desktop computer, but that’s okay. My trusty old Kindle Fire did just fine. Even if it wouldn’t let me check my email.

My husband did have one bad morning when the power was out. He’s one of those people who needs his caffeine fix in the morning and he couldn’t use the coffee maker. As you would expect, he was a bit grumpy when I got up and hour or so after he did. Fortunately, I found some instant coffee stashed in the back of a cupboard and all was right with the world once again.

And cooking dinner by candlelight? Not as easy as you would think. You can’t tell if something’s burning until you smell the smoke. That or you stir and flip with one hand while the other holds a flashlight.

Then there was the day we were so bored we binge watched West Wing. I loved that series when it aired so my family bought me five seasons worth of DVD sets.

But, the story’s not over yet. According to the weather reports and my window, we still have a bunch of rain and wind to deal with today and some light rain tomorrow and the next before we’re done.

Stay safe and dry out there.