Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Facing Your Giants

From historicalstockphotos.com
We all have them, casting their dark shadows on everything we try to accomplish. They won't leave us alone, no matter where we travel or how much we try to drown them out with stupid reality shows and cheap wine. They're the giants of our past struggles. Our pain. Our heartaches and regrets.

As writers, we are tempted to write anything BUT what those giants represent. Re-visiting them is too hard. It opens us up and makes us vulnerable again. We might even shed a tear or become so depressed thinking about it, that we won't be productive again the rest of the day.

But I say it's high time we faced those giants head on. Because when we do, it will give our stories the emotional impact they need to grab the reader and never let go.

Call it pawning the giants off on some innocent reader if you like. Hey, they asked for it when they picked up a book to read, didn't they? They weren't looking for a book about macrame--they were looking for a story that would move them in some way.

I'm not talking about nonfiction, as in memoirs, biographies, or autobiographies, as those will have some different rules. You can't expect to write about Aunt Angie's hideous bunions that gave you nightmares and not expect her or her progeny to be offended. I'm talking about fiction and how you can use your real experiences to fuel the events of your FICTIONAL characters.

Though it can be very hard, sometimes you gotta look those giants in the eyes and tell them exactly how you feel by transplanting your actual emotions to the page. 

Grief for instance, is not an easy giant to face. It took me years to be able to write about my mother's death, but when I wrote about Caliphany's father's death in A Ranger's Tale, I might as well have been writing about that awful day in 2003. When my mom died, I remember the foggy night of the visitation at the funeral home. I stood by her coffin. She was dressed in the pretty pink skirt and blouse she had worn at my wedding. The flowers were pretty. Music droned from hidden speakers, alternating between calm instrumentals and old hymns I'd heard my mother sing in church since I was big enough to understand the words. Except this time, I didn't hear the words. I only recognized the melodies when they managed to pierce my consciousness enough to break through my grief. And then there were the people. They streamed in, one after the other, old and young, and I remember some older ladies saying something about not having seen me since I was a baby. There were condolences, hugs, and tears, but unless I look back at the guest registry, I couldn't tell you who exactly was there other than my husband and brother.

Hard as it was, I had to tap into that grief and let Caliphany express it as she stood like I had, strong, yet weakened by her loss, as she was here:

     I half expected him to walk across the pavilion, the waves of people parting as he passed. That mountain of a man, leveled to nothing before my eyes. I took the hands of faceless guests, nodded my acknowledgement of their condolences, and prayed for something, anything, to take our pain away.

The morning after my mom died, I remember waking up in her house, in my old room. Sunlight brightened the windows. Birds sang in the walnut trees. It was a beautiful October morning, but the house was too quiet. Her kitchen radio wasn't playing the local buy/sell/trade call-in show. There was no smell of bacon or sausage or her funny admonitions of "Stop that!" when the grease would pop out and burn her hands. Life had dared to go on without her.

Caliphany had to face her father's absence from life too.

     The manor seemed so lifeless when I visited my mother the next morning. Without Father there, the place was too vast, like a labyrinth of endless space. Clocks ticked, insistent reminders of time moving on when we didn't want it to.

Remember, you can base your characters' struggles on yours, but they are NOT YOU, so draw from conflicts you have read, heard about, or seen to add variety and originality. 

Take Serenya, for instance, in Serenya's Song. She was bullied in school for her deformity, as I was for the scars on my cheeks and my glasses. As bullying can do, it left a long-lasting impression on me (and her) in terms of crippling low self-esteem. I am very fortunate to have never been the victim of domestic violence, but I used what I've seen and read to portray how Serenya's poor self-image makes her vulnerable to the cruelty of her husband.

     He grabbed my fingers and bent them back until the tendons stretched and protested with pain. I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from crying out. My heart pounded a warning in my ears. Hot, alcohol-laden breath, a mixture of ale and brandy, steamed through Sebastian’s clenched teeth, heating my face with its putrid stench.      
I tried to pull away from him, but he pushed closer, trapping my body between him and the desk. “Please,” I whispered as the hot sting of tears blurred my vision, “you’ve been drinking. Go to bed and sleep it off.”      
Sebastian’s grip loosened a bit. He brought my fingers to his lips and sucked the tips one by one. His tongue lingered on each pointed nail.  “You see,” he said, pausing between my middle and ring finger, “I’m the only one who can love you like this.”    
“I know."

And lucky for Serenya, I gave her a strong ally in Lillyanne. Wish I'd have had her growing up!

    Dear Lillyanne Sawyer—it was so good to see her again. A few years older than me, she was like the big sister I never had, even though I’d passed her halfling height years ago. I think she pummeled every school kid who ever looked at me the wrong way.

My husband and I grew up in a small town. We moved back to another one shortly after our first child was born. Relocating to an unfamiliar small town is harder, I think, than relocating to a city, where there are plenty of other transplants like yourself. It took us a full nine years to start feeling like we belonged in the last town we lived in. Though we did make some very good friends, we couldn't shrug off that "You're not from around here, are you?" mentality. And the gossip...oh the gossip! Every time I sat in the local hair salon, I heard dirt on people I didn't know from Adam (I guess because I "wasn't from around there").

Unlike Serenya, I didn't face anyone shunning me over a physical deformity, but I played up the uglier bits of small town politics I'd witnessed to show how Serenya and Jayden both face scrutiny in their little town of Summerwind. Take this conversation Serenya overhears in the tavern:

     “What happened to Lady Crowe?” 
     "You know she’s different—always wears those gloves.”       
   “Something’s not right. I knew it ever since Barnaby and that daughter of his moved here.”

I know many friends who have been the unfortunate victims of racism and prejudice, and I don't think I'd have taken it with half the grace that they have. Jayden (a wood-elf) experiences some racism as he's investigating the occurrences involving a strange portal. The halfling farmers are not happy in the least:

Photo by Acwaith, DeviantArt.com

           The farmers grumbled in their Haddo tongue. Shade edged her horse closer to Zephyrus. Perri put himself between us and the farmers. I settled my hand on the hilt of my sword. If they took their frustrations out on Perri, I’d have to do something I would really regret.
            He held his hands palm out, mimicking my gesture to placate them. “Ye all go back home now. Jay and the others will take care of this. Give ‘em time.”
            Most of them turned to walk away. The last farmer who spoke lowered his scythe, but wagged a stubby finger at us. “I’ll have ye know, we don’t trust yer kind here, especially ye city-dwellers. We take care of our own.”

My point in all this blathering on is that, no matter how hard it is, you need to face those giants if you want to add an authentic ring to your fictional story. I think many people equate the advice of "write what you know" to specific occupations and skills. Like being a forensic pathologist so you can accurately write a crime thriller. But, it goes a lot deeper than that. If you've never experienced the loss of a loved one or have never witnessed anyone else's grief, how can you accurately portray that? If you've never faced racism or bullying or never known someone who has, how can you get that across effectively on the page? 

Even if you're young and inexperienced, I bet you have a giant or two you can use to fuel your writing.
Delve deep, find those giants that are lurking in your psyche and use them to your advantage. It's cathartic, therapeutic, and will give you a story your readers won't forget. 

What giants have YOU faced in your writing or hope to face in the future? 


  1. Mysti, that was some awesome advice. Thank you. There has been plenty of "giants" to choose from, yet sometimes as you say, "Re-visiting them is too hard. It opens us up and makes us vulnerable again. We might even shed a tear or become so depressed thinking about it, that we won't be productive again the rest of the day."

    I hope that this has sunk into the hard granite-like substance that my head seems to be made of.


    1. Thanks for commenting, Tom! Like I said, it took me a long time to be able to write about my mom's death, even figuratively in a fictional one. Even longer to write about the real event as I did here. But when I did, it helped me deal with emotions I'd been bottling up and I felt better in the long run.

  2. In my own case Mysti, my own giants are many and varied. I have found that writing is my best defence against them, as you have. I find that to be a writer you have to lay your soul bare. You have to be a sponge sucking up all that life throws at you. :)

  3. Excellent. I agree that writing can be so therapeutic.

  4. Excellent post. Great advice! Often times when our heart takes a hit is when we do our best writing.


***NOTICE*** Thanks to a spam bot infestation, every comment must now be subjected to a full-body search. If you pass, you can skip the anal probing...maybe.