Hero’s Journeys and Ritual Landscapes #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop

The most effective hero’s journey stories use landscape as an important part of the journey

“Ritual landscape” is a term coined by archaeologists originally to refer to the concentration of ceremonial sites of Neolithic and Bronze Age people in one geographic area. Stonehenge, with expansive earthworks extending out from the central henge for at least 6 km, is probably the best known English example. In recent years the term has been extended to refer to later periods, and I have argued in papers for landscape archaeology courses that it can be used as a basis to examine how even the landscape of a stately home can be structured to create a sense of awe and ceremony, with the house taking the place of the central temple. But here, I’d like to think about the purposes of a ritual landscape, and how they might align with the concept of the hero’s journey in fiction.

Archaeologists argue that ritual landscapes are in part about places of protection and renewal. Francis Pryor writes:

I sometimes wonder whether ritual landscapes are indeed just a prehistoric phenomenon. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more I realise that the need to travel, discover and re-imagine is part of the human condition. In the Middle Ages people from all walks of life regularly went on pilgrimages and of course they were familiar with what the various places they were travelling through signified. Pilgrimages, just like their pre-Roman antecedents, were never about exploration, de novo. Instead the exploration was personal and introspective.

The hero’s journey is also about pilgrimage:

 the common template of a broad category of tales and lore that involves a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed.

And at this point, you may well be thinking, OK, but how does this all fit into a blog about tools for writers? Bear with me. Because my point is this: the most effective hero’s journey books, whether they are high fantasy or not, use landscape as an important part of the journey. The ritual landscape becomes infused and integrated into the journey, the pilgrimage, and in is part what helps to transform the ‘hero’. It’s a force in the story, not just a background to the adventure.

The first example that came to mind when as I contemplated this idea is from The Lord of the Rings, as the fellowship travel down the Anduin and pass through the Pillars of the Kings. It is a dangerous place, guarded by the two ancient carved likenesses of two kings:

Awe and fear fell upon Frodo, and he cowered down….even Boromir bowed his head as the boats whirled by, under the enduring shadow of the guardians of Númenor…. “Fear not!” said a strange voice behind him. Frodo turned and saw Strider, and yet not Strider; for the weatherworn Ranger was no longer there. In the stern sat Aragorn son of Arathorn, proud and erect, guiding the boat with skillful strokes; his hood was cast back, and his dark hair was blowing in the wind, a light was in his eyes: a King returning from exile to his own land.

This is a striking and almost obvious example of the power of landscape, but the concept can also be used more subtly (there are many examples in LOTR: Tolkien understood the power of landscape long before the term ‘ritual landscape’ became an archaeological term – nor was he the first.)

In Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, in the last volume, Silver on the Tree, she uses ritual landscape as a turning point in the story:

Jane said … “What an enormous lot of flat land there is on the other side of the river. Miles of it, miles and miles, before the mountains start again.” … Will stood up and came quietly forward to stand beside [Bran], looking down at the estuary. He tried to keep the excitement from his voice. “Drowned,” he said. “Lost.” The mountain was very quiet. The skylark had finished its song. Very far away once more they heard gulls faintly crying, out over the sea. Bran stood very still, without turning. “Dear God,” he said. The others scrambled to their feet. Simon said, “The Lost Land?

These are only two many many examples. I use the concept in my own books, both consciously and unconsciously. If you are writing a ‘hero’s journey’ structure, I’d encourage you to seriously consider the idea of how landscape can inform the travel and transformation of your characters. It adds another dimension to the story, one that embeds it further into its time and place, strengthening the connection to your world – whether it is real or imagined – and creating a setting that will resonate in the minds of your readers.  

Featured image: Sí an Bhrú (Newgrange), Ireland. Tjp Finn, CC 4.0 license.

How many hours? Planning research for a historically-based novel: #authortoolboxbloghop

For my first two books, I was lucky – years of immersing myself in the Roman and post-Roman history of Britannia meant I had little actual research to do, except fact-checking. But the third took me into the library.

The books I write are quasi-historical: they are set in a world with strong similarities to northern Europe after the decline of Rome. There are significant differences, but many of the events that shape it are based on real history. For my first two books, I was lucky – years of immersing myself in the Roman and post-Roman history of Britannia meant I had little actual research to do, except fact-checking. But the third took me out of the Britannia analogue – and into the library.

As I prepare to write the fifth full novel in the series, I am expanding into both a geography and a political history I know less about. So it’s time for more research, and in this month’s #authortoolboxbloghop, I look at how I do that.

When I say research, I mean major research, not the quick Google search for ‘how many public bread ovens were there in Rome’. (One for every 350 people, roughly, if you care.) Without giving too much away, the plot of Empire’s Heir, the next book, takes place mostly in Casil, my Rome analogue, and involves the politics of power as they rest in a high ranking, and therefore highly marriageable, young woman.

So, what major topics did I need to research this time?

Setting: Rome in the 4th C, which is the time in Rome’s history I chose to base my physical city on;

Character background: the education of an heiress to a country’s leadership in early-medieval Europe;

Politics: the politics and practicalities of marriage alliances.

(In other books, it’s been battles, and ship construction, and travel times between Rome and Britannia, and Viking travel into continental Europe and Byzantium…whatever you’re writing about, you need to define what you’ll have to spend time researching.)

Let’s look at those topics one at a time.

Setting:  Part of one of my earlier books takes place in Casil, so I’ve already done a fair bit of research. Three sources have been particularly useful

  1. Video reconstructions
  2. Ancient maps
  3. A research trip to Rome, with a private guide. (I realize this is a luxury out of the reach of many, but good guidebooks to ancient Rome could have been substituted, especially used in conjunction with the video reconstructions.)

What I have now are sources to refer to, and a fair understanding of the geography of Rome. Between watching the videos, taking an on-line course on ancient Rome, studying the maps and actually going to Rome, I’ve spent about two weeks – call it 80 hours – on this prior to beginning to write the book. I need to spend another 10 or so, I think, working with a map and the structures of buildings in conjunction with the plot of my story.  Where are the stairs she’ll need to access? How long did it take to get from the Forum to the Pantheon on foot?  What’s the easiest route for a character who is physically disabled to travel?

Character background: the education of an heiress to a country’s leadership in early-medieval Europe. I’m using a number of sources here, some on-line, more not: several new books on early-medieval women wait to be read. I did both a literature search, and asked some friends whose research area this is, to find the books to read. 40 hours here, for a solid understanding.

Politics: the politics and practicalities of marriage alliances.  Again, more reading; some will be covered in the other books; some will be separate. I estimate 30 hours.

In total, I expect to spend 160 hours in major research prior to writing. Four forty-hour weeks. Some of it’s already done, so now perhaps I have 80 hours to do, or 2 full weeks. But I can’t devote 40 hours a week to research – while I work as a writer & editor full time, that includes all sorts of other writing (like this blog post), my editorial work, and promotion and marketing. Call it 6 weeks, then (providing I don’t find myself going down fascinating rabbit-holes of trivia.)

As fascinating as I find all this, I can’t focus on one subject for too long. So I will divide it up –  a couple of partial days spent on the mapping and logistics (which I love, and can easily hyperfocus on); a couple of partial days spent on reading. The advantage, too, of doing it this way will be the cross-pollination of ideas that will occur – because while I have an overall plot outline, it will be the research that fills it out and provides details and plot twists I won’t necessarily have thought of. But it also means I won’t start the actual novel until September.

Sometimes I envy writers who get to make it all up!

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Using Colour-Coding in Editing: #authortoolboxbloghop

Colour-coding can help a writer identify weaknesses in their manuscript in an analytic, non-threatening manner.

“Show, don’t tell.”  Every writer has heard this axiom. But there are times when telling is appropriate, briefly – and times when too much definitely gets in the way of a compelling story.  In my work with developing writers, I ask them to analyze their manuscripts for two types of telling: exposition, and telling within conversation. Both can be problematic, when they occur in large clumps.

In this screenshot of part of a manuscript, red is expositional telling, and blue is conversational telling. By looking at his work in this way, the author could see two problematic areas: first, the large section of red (exposition) in the first eight pages of the story, and then the three-and-a half pages of conversational telling in the last row. (A closer look also shows us that in the first 10 pages, there’s a lot of conversational telling too, especially when considered alongside the exposition.  This is the classic mistake of a huge info-dump in the first pages of a book.)

I find that by having a writer identify this on their own, it’s less threatening, less of a style critique and more of an impersonal analysis. We’d had some solid discussions about what telling looks like, and what are alternatives, before he began this. He’s learned to recognize both forms of telling, and is better placed to judge his own use.

Colour-coding has other applications, too. Right now this same author and I are working through his stories to see if he’s included all the 12 steps of the hero’s journey.  (Do you have to include them all?  That’s a discussion for another day.)

Another version of colour-coding is using the Find & Replace function to colour words. (Instructions below.)  Here’s an example. Using the Advanced feature of Find & Replace, I asked Word to make every ‘was’ in my most recent manuscript red.

It’s a quick visual to show me which pages to analyze, without having to read the entire book again. (Plus, I tend to get lost in my own story when I do that, and miss what I’m there to edit!)

How do you use colour-coding? I’d love to hear your ideas!

*****

Here are the screenshots showing you how to use Find & Replace to colour words:

From the pulldown menu, choose Advanced Find.

Then, enter ‘was’ in both the find and replace boxes. Click in the Replace box, and then go to the Format button on the lower left. Choose the settings illustrated, and then choose Replace All in the first dialogue box.

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Time & Project Management: #authortoolboxbloghop

I have ADHD, which has both its own challenges and its own rewards. At some point in grad school, I recognized my lack of organizational skills.

I used to work in a job so multi-faceted and complex that when I left, I was replaced by two people. I had dozens of projects on the go, several teams of people to oversee, and a huge budget to manage. There is no doubt I worked too hard and too long, and I left burnt out, but I also learned some very valuable lessons in managing time and projects that I still use today in my third career as a writer, editor and the coordinator of a small indie collective press.

I’ll throw in my usual caveats here: I’m in my 60s; no children, and this is what I do full time. I’m not balancing another job, children, elderly parents, house renovations, commuting…life. (I did, though, minus the children, and that’s why my first book took 12 years to write.)

I recognized my lack of organizational skills somewhere in grad school. I have ADHD, which has both its own challenges and its own rewards, the ability to hyperfocus for long periods of time on certain things being the most obvious positive feature (for me). But I needed processes to replace my poor executive function, because without them, it was and is all too easy to be overwhelmed with the amount of work in front of me. And if I get overwhelmed, I simply do nothing.

I won’t bore you with a list of the books I read and the methods I tried. Most didn’t work; they required too much time and focus. But I took bits from most of them, and now I have a system that works fairly well. It’s quick and it’s visual, both requirements for me.

As you can see, I use a series of checklists, and a forward-projection of the dates on which each project needs to be completed. This allows me to then subdivide the project into chunks, and schedule those, as well, working backwards from the completion date.

Then I use a daily planner. I know I’m most productive in the mornings, so between 8:30 and 11:30 is my intensive work time. That’s my time to work on my own book, when I have one in progress – and when I am actively writing, it’s nearly every day. I don’t wait for creativity to strike: most of the time, once I start, the words will flow. Perhaps not as well as I’d like, but as the saying goes, you can’t edit a blank page.  

When I’m not actively writing, this is the time I use to learn something new or do in-depth research: whatever the big tasks are that the board shows me I need to complete.  I take a couple of breaks, for movement and coffee, usually sneaking in a load of laundry or some other household chore.

After lunch I’ll generally check emails & social media, deal with anything important (or amusing) and then work on non-writing projects (that includes editing other people’s work or doing video meetings with other writers) for an hour or two. Exercise next, a walk or cycling for at least an hour and then another hour or so on ‘little’ things, tasks that don’t take a lot of creativity, such as updating websites, checking analytics, filling out forms, sending information out. But even most of those – barring an urgent response – have been scheduled, again to prevent me from feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of them. Then I settle down with a cup of tea and read – books for review and/or pleasure – for 15 minutes to half an hour.

A few nights a week I work between about 10 and midnight: that’s a different sort of creative time for me, the time I write scenes that never make it into the book, but teach me about my characters and their responses; the time I do mindmaps of the major themes and conflicts of the story, the free-flowing ‘right brain’ associations and lateral thinking taking over. I’m about half-way between the poles of pantser and plotter, and this time is completely necessary to my writing process, and very different from the task-oriented approach I use the rest of the time. I’ll likely have music on, songs that relate to my work-in-progress in some manner. I might read poetry, looking for epigraphs or just for the expression of emotion I too am looking to convey.

Of course, life gets in the way of any schedule. One of the best pieces of advice I ever read was to not overschedule your day, so that there is room for the interruptions and minor ‘emergencies’. Friday afternoons are unscheduled, for catch-up, and my weekends look different from Monday to Friday: I may work for myself, but I still get weekends! Groceries and cleaning and movie matinees and dinners with friends (well, not the two last ones just now, in the middle of COVID-19 social distancing) are all part of the week too.

Does it work perfectly? Of course not. I have days when I’m just too scattered, and that’s likely a day I choose to do something that I know I will hyperfocus on – designing ads, doing layout, or very detailed editing on my own work  –  and sometimes I just need to walk away from everything. But when I come back, the structure is there to guide me as to priorities: I don’t have to reinvent them. It keeps my mind calmer, and when my mind is calm, I’m productive.

Oh, and I have one other necessary ingredient in all this: coffee!

Critique Partner, Life Partner: A Risky Proposition? #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop

My critique partner is also my life partner. How do we make this work?

When I tell other writers that my critique partner is also my life partner, reactions tend to fall into two categories: ‘how wonderful’, or, ‘OMG, that would split us up!’. It works well for us, but why?

Just so we’re all on the same page, here’s the definition of a critique partner that I’m using here: A critique partner is a fellow writer with whom you exchange critiques of your manuscripts.[1] In the marvellous article by K.M. Weiland that I borrowed this definition from, she goes on to list and discuss the qualities a writer should look for in choosing a critique partner. I’m not going to reiterate them – you can read the article! Instead, I’m going to look at what matters in the relationship between critique partners, and how we’ve developed these.

  1. Respect

Brian and I are both writers, in different stages of our profession. But our respect for each other’s abilities goes way beyond writing. We’ve been together for 42 years; we met in university. We both did advanced degrees in related subjects, and worked together on research, even co-authoring research articles. My expertise there was more technical; his was more theoretical. We complemented each other. Our next careers, both in education, were again different but complementary. Finally, we share a major hobby: birding. Again, we know our skills support each other. Seeing a bird in flight, I can identify bird families easily; given that, he can narrow down species faster than I can, usually.

Important in this was watching each other (and helping each other) learn, as scientists and teachers and birders. We have confidence in each other’s ability to grow in a field, to take theoretical knowledge and translate it to action. So as we learn and develop as writers, together and separately, we strengthen each other’s writing. For example, he’s a much better plotter than I am, and quick to point out where my plot is weak or inconsistent. I’m a better stylist, hearing the cadence and flow of words better than he can.

Respect for differing skills is an advantage I’ve heard from other writers, too. At Maple Mystery Games, co-creators Jan and her husband John work together. John is best at plot twists, while she is the detail person. “I tend to brainstorm ideas with hubby at the start of writing a murder mystery game and also when I first work on creating characters. His brain works in a different way to mine,” Jan said.

  • Trust

We’re not competing. I write adult alternate-world historical fiction, character-driven books focused on personal choices in difficult times. He writes plot-driven young adult fantasy. But we are both committed to helping each other write the best books we can, and we know how to separate the building blocks of craft from the emotional attachment to the stories we are writing.

An advantage of your life partner as your critique partner is that in the middle of brushing your teeth you can say to them, ‘Do you think Character A would react in this way?’ (While our books aren’t the only subject of conversation between us, it does sometimes sound that way.) We know each other’s world and characters very, very well, but without the same degree of emotional attachment. So when Brian told me a while back that in my latest book (where the previous MC is now a supporting character) that he didn’t like how I was portraying her, I knew he had a valid point. When I told him I thought a supporting character in his series needed a larger role (and why) he agreed, after consideration.

This advantage can also be a disadvantage. Sometimes we’ve had enough of each other’s world and characters, especially if we’re working on a tough plot point, or an external worry or commitment has to take priority – or we just want to shut up and watch television. Trust here means knowing the other one will get back to that question, just not right now.

  • Communication

This is not always easy!  I am the world’s worst verbal communicator, especially off-the-cuff, and on top of that, much of what I know about writing – especially style – is instinctive. Often, I don’t know how to explain my suggestions. Add to that my tendency to pick up terms and jargon quickly, and my explanations to Brian are often sources of frustration. He is much more precise. We can both be very blunt.

But we listen to each other, even when the instinctive reaction is ‘no’. Sometimes the first reaction is right, but most of the time the other person’s opinion needs serious consideration. Mostly we discuss the differing viewpoints, searching out the reasons behind the suggestions and critiques.

Is there a down side? Only, I think, that by the time the work-in-progress reaches the end of the first draft, we each know plot twists and reveals so well it’s hard to read with fresh eyes. But even then, Brian’s read-through of the latest version of Empire’s Reckoning, my WIP, resulted in thoughtful, appropriate and necessary criticisms, which I am in the process of addressing. Then it’ll be on to the beta-readers.

Oh, and yes, Brian critiqued this blog post, too.


[1] https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/how-to-find-the-right-critique-partner/