Monday, December 2, 2013

History in Your Fiction (by John Konecsni)

If you're a fan of the thriller genre, you might have noticed a strange trend.  Many thrillers have been looking backwards, turning to history, sometimes in the middle of the most high-tech shootouts you'll ever see. Some of these have some interesting viewpoints on history – James Rollins, for example, or David Morrell's The Spy Who Came for Christmas – and some make history into a chaotic, gibbering mass of propaganda (Do I even need to say “Dan Brown”?).  As much as I would like to blame certain history-bending hacks, this trend pre-dates any books with Renaissance artists in the title.

Using history is often difficult when writing a thriller. No matter what the author is using, there's always the danger of using too much information.  You have to give enough information to establish context, culture, in addition to the personalities involved, the reasoning behind events … and this doesn't even count actions involved. Not only that, it's all too easy to make the history that is relevant to the plot a pedantic, endless lecture.

There are some solutions to this.  With James Rollins, he balances it out by interweaving it so closely to the plot (as well as some surprisingly cutting-edge physics) and some tight, well-written action sequences. David Morrell elaborates on the history with a simple, eloquent storyteller feel.

For example, in A Pius Man, the book took place in the 21st century, and centered around the World War II Pope, Pius XII, and how he was labeled “Hitler's Pope” (by about a half-dozen pop-history hacks in the late '90s, and a few thriller authors earlier this century). As a history major, I did my own research, and my inner Bruce Banner got offended.

Unfortunately, while being annoyed is a good way to motivate a book, it's not a great way to write. Sure, my first draft addressed every single inaccuracy and idiocy ever expressed by anybody surrounding the history of Pius XII … and every bit of theology and philosophy they got wrong … and there's more than one reason A Pius Man turned into a trilogy.  Granted, a lot of thought went into the books. Perhaps too much thought.

In subsequent rewrites, the history / theology / philosophy (hereby shortened to “the nonfiction”) was spread out over the two primary threads of the story.  On the one hand, there was the investigation of “people going to the Vatican archives are being murdered,”and there was an adjoining thread that involved two spies looking at one of the victims … who happened to be a terrorist. The end result not only cut out ten pages of endless prattling of nonfiction (Galileo might be interesting, but connecting his house arrest to the main plot is a bit of a stretch, even for this book), but also spread it across the entire novel that looked more like James Rollins than Certain Authors Who Shall Not Be Named. The monologues became discussions, and they were broken up by, well, attempts by heavily armed men trying to kill them.

See? It's not that hard.  Using history in a novel is like using forensics or medicine, or any novel where a specific subset of knowledge is required in order to understand the story. The truly difficult part is making certain you don't love your subject so much you get into your own way. Then it just becomes a matter of “oh, look, I'm over-sharing.”  You have to be especially careful when a large part of the history is focused on convincing your characters (and your readers) about a specific historical point. After a while, persuasion becomes preaching, and the reader thinks “to heck with this, I'm going to skip ahead until you get back to the plot.” 

Granted, in the case of A Pius Man, it helps when characters have a low tolerance threshold for long discussions, and literally says, “Great, can we skip to the part of why we care?” That helps.

Advent: Lent, with Christmas Lights (by John Konecsni)

How many of us grew up with the concept that Advent was just Lent, only for Christmas? As a child of the '90s, my experience tells me “not many.”

Don't worry, this isn't going to be the standard “spirituality over materialism” Christmas special that you usually get this time of year. After all, if 40 years of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” isn't going to convince the Internet, then one blog post isn't going to tip the balance. Besides, if you're reading this post, it is unlikely that you need convincing. I can't see many of Karl's readers involved in a Black Friday shootout over the latest gadgets.

However, how many of us take the time to prepare ourselves, spiritually, for the coming of Christmas, and Jesus' birthday? Assuming that neither you nor I are involved in the latest riot at a toy store – my gift shopping was done in August – we are free from any special psychosis-inducing event that comes with the materialism of the season. But what of the day-to-day?

Let us consider, for a moment, just how special Christmas is.  Yes, Christ was incarnate, etc, etc … does that really matter? After all, Christmas isn't considered the most important part of the Catholic calender, Easter is. There's a reason that Handel's Messiah has the “Hallelujah Chorus” in the section covering Easter.  And, for Easter, we pull out all the stops, don't we? We fast, we abstain, we confess.

What do we do for Advent? If we go by what your average church encourages, probably not as much as we should. While Easter is the day in the Eucharistic calender, Christmas is what makes Easter possible.

So, something to dwell on, if you would (I abhor the word “meditation”); try something that our Pope would be familiar with – the Jesuit practice of imagining.  In this case, just imagine if you were the creator of every speck of dust and every watt of electrons, and you make a choice to become – at best – a foot-long, 12-pound creature without the brainpower to utter a coherent sound. And you do this so that you can clean up the mistakes of people who really should know better. Isn't that a strange thing to do?

It was Fulton Sheen who once described the reason that Jesus had to be incarnate in order for our salvation.  He explained it very simply as a form of retribution, of repayment.  If you steal my watch and ask me to forgive you, I will, but I want my watch back.  Now, what happens when you offend against an infinite Being that is so far beyond our experience, the wonders of time and space are dwarfed?  What kind of repayment can we utilize to make amends?  Only something just as infinite – in this case, someone.

Yes, I agree, this is quite of bit of depth coming from someone who dedicates pages to shootouts in between bits of history just so he can revenge himself on Dan Brown, et al, but I have my moments.

In the memory of the Infinite Being who became a mewling infant, let's try to put in as much effort to Advent as to Lent. Visit a confessional, give up something if you like. Just … something.

As for me? I take a page from St. Augustine, who once said that “Singing is praying. When one sings, one prays twice.”  There's a reason that I'm always on the hunt for a perfect rendition of “Angels We Have Heard On High

Sunday, December 1, 2013

New and Better Things

Politics has had my attention for a long time now.  During President Reagan's second campaign, I worked as a young volunteer in the downtown Yakima Republican headquarters.  It was usually just stuffing envelopes, but I was just glad to be able to do something to help a candidate in which I so strongly believed.  Lately, I've been so busy writing and working my state day job, that my political involvement has taken a nosedive.  That's about to take a serious change as I... enter the race for Oregon State House of Representatives, District 20.

Some close family and friends probably believe I've lost it, and that's fine.  I'm known for following my own course.  I'm accountable for what I do or don't do to make Oregon a better place.  I have to undertake what I believe is right, and I believe the timing is good this year for an entry into state politics.  I am optimistic that the people of Oregon's 20th District may see fit to entrust me with their confidence--and their vote.  It's not about me, however, it's about them.  A friend of mine calls this servant leadership, and I believe it's a critical mindset for successful and meaningful leadership.

As I step into this new chapter, I seek to proceed with the greatest humility as well as a desire to find incredibly talented people with whom to surround myself.  If you are interested in joining my team, please contact me today.  I am always looking for more volunteers, and there may also be an internship position available at some future time.

Special thanks also to those in the legislature who have given of their time for my questions these last couple weeks.

Find The Campaign!

What's Next for Singing in the Wood?

After a guest post from my Catholic Writers' Guild friend John Konecsni, this blog will be going to my sister-in-law, Shannon Dennis, for a while.  She plans to write on faith and family issues, and I can't wait to read what she shares!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

You Should Read "The Song of Esther!"

My wife and I participated at a local book event with Mrs. Brainard a few months back, and I was delighted to pick-up a copy of her book concerning the biblical person of Esther.  The story really caught my interest, and the characters and setting were definitely engaging.  It follows the story of Esther from young orphan girl to her marriage to King Xerxes of Persia, making her the Queen.

The author's significant education, research, and knowledge of the history and languages of the era set this tale apart as very unique historical fiction, a great accomplishment.  Here's a short quote from the author concerning her book.  (The quote is taken from her website.)

"Esther’s Song presents a realistic fictional account of Esther; the Jewish queen immortalized in the Bible book bearing her name. This historical novel imagines how a Jewish orphan, adopted by her cousin Mordecai, successfully navigated the lethal corridors of a royal harem, withstood palace intrigue, and overcame religious persecution to marry Xerxes, King of the Persian Empire, and save her people from extermination at the vengeful hands of Haman the Agagite."

While I really enjoyed this tale, there are just a few cautions I would add.  First, there is at least a single scene which could be disturbing to younger readers.  This book should be considered PG-13, or so.  It's important to mention, though, that the scene in question serves a definite purpose.  Her decision to include it was likely the right one, but it's still disturbing.  Second, as I have also been told regarding some of my own fiction, this work could have really used some additional editing.  There are issues of missing commas, "insure" rather than "ensure," the use of distracting American colloquialisms, as well as some problems regarding how the passage of time is conveyed within the narrative.

Even considering the preceding paragraph, however, this is a book I recommend you go and buy straightaway.  Read The Song of Esther, and you'll find yourself reading the book of Esther shortly thereafter!  It's a wonderful work of creation as well as research, and it really brought this important woman out of history for me, making her real and present in my mind.  

Lastly, I'd like to note that the author does her own translations from the biblical texts.  Please read the accompanying photograph of Psalm 23 from the novel's opening pages, and tell me that this isn't one of the most beautiful and fresh translations you've ever read of this wonderful Psalm.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Locked and Loaded, A Sneak Peek at "The Blood Cries Out" Newsletter!!

I have a confession to make; "Locked and Loaded" may not ultimately be the name of my new newsletter, but I figure why not try it on for size first?  It is kind of growing on me...

Now, if you're familiar with my Kickstarter Project (Spare a Dollar for a Great Book?), you've probably seen me referring to the newsletter.  I thought I'd offer just a glimpse of the kind of content I have planned.  First, I'd like to offer look at part of the novel's outline.  Second, I'll offer a few words about the places in and surrounding the story.  Third, I am going to include a short excerpt from the novel.  Fourth, I'd like to try a Q & A section.  The challenge here, is that I'll be asking and answering the questions.  In the future, I'd like to invite other authors to answer a few questions about writing--among other things.  As it is, I'll do my best to ask myself hard-hitting questions.

A Glimpse of the Outline

What happens when Seattle Police Detective David Lightholler must face the brutal death of a friend?  The story, divided into two parts of six chapters each, opens with the protagonist responding with his partner to a particularly bloody murder scene in Seattle.  He soon discovers something about the victim that sends his emotions spiraling out of control...

A Sense of Place

I seem to either connect or not connect with a place; there's seldom a feeling of ambivalence.  In the case of the south and midwest, for instance, I always felt like a fish out of water.  Don't get me wrong, I love the people, but I can't feel a sense of connection to the place.  In Washington and Oregon, there's so much beauty and majesty all about you, that it's sometimes hard to take it all in.  You get accustomed to it.  I think this is part of the reason why it was so important to me to get the details right.  I wanted to convey a strong sense of place in The Blood Cries Out.  Early reader feedback suggests that I was successful.

Neil Low gives me the royal tour of SPD.
I love Seattle.  I attended Seattle Pacific University in the late 1980s, and I worked at the university in the early 1990s.  It's a special place, and I love the light and atmosphere of the city.  I could spend a lifetime photographing it, but I never have the time these days to spend considerable time there.
  In the spring of 2011, we took a few days to visit areas of critical importance to the tale.  This included the Seattle Police Department, where Neil Low graciously came in on his day off to give me a department tour. The tour was great, but, sadly, the Seattle weather was...a lot like Seattle weather.

St. Francis Catholic Church, Friday Harbor, Washington
Friday Harbor was that other western Washington area we visited on that 2011 vacation.  The weather was lovely the first day, but things began going downhill on the second.  It didn't matter much to me, though.  It was wonderful to visit the island again.  It had been far too long--and it has been so again!  Some authors will say that that these kind of personal visits aren't necessary for fiction authors, but I think this kind of in-person research is terribly important if the writer is to successfuly capture and convey the unique feeling of a particular environment.

Welcome to Oregon's Wallowas.
While it's true that the northeastern region of Oregon referred to as the Wallowas only plays a minor role in the novel, that wasn't the original plan.  More on that later!

The Blood Cries Out Excerpt  (Updated July 2014)

It was early Friday morning by the time David was finally in bed.  Exhausted, he fell into an uneasy sleep, his bloodshot eyes closing on the image of his badge and holstered .45 caliber Smith and Wesson with its ejected magazine beside it on the bedside table.  The room was dimly illuminated by the moonlight beyond the rustling lace curtains.   Outside, the night wind blew the old madrona’s branches against the house.  The clanging of sailboat rigging blowing against the tall masts drifted up from the harbor along with sound of a distant foghorn.  The Friday Harbor ferry terminal below lay dark and still.  Deep sleep came eventually, but then the nightmarish blackness seized him.  He was dragged to the place he dreaded the most.  He tried to turn away, to run, but he stood immobile now before that evil house on Parkmont Place.  It was late evening with an unsettling reddish light, and he was utterly alone.  A damp and cold wind blew, and he felt something pulling him forward, towards the steps.  Against his own will, he pushed the unlatched door, and it creaked in protest--or warning.  He walked silently up the steps and turned into the second bedroom on the left.  The stillness of the room was in sharp contrast to his beating heart.     

The blood was everywhere, and Catryn lay exactly as he had first seen her.  Only this time there were no uniformed officers milling about outside, no detectives taking notes or talking on the phone, and no squawking radios in the background.  The night beyond the windows was an impenetrable mass now with no sign of life or light, a darkness that could be felt.  Her mouth was agape at a distorted angle, a mockery of life, and she was crumpled up in the corner like so much garbage left on the roadside.  Her torn blouse exposed that jagged and terrible laceration in her chest.  It was too horrible to look at, but...curse his eyes!...there it was.  He couldn’t turn away from the silent woman gazing up from the crimson floor.  His eyes were drawn to her slender fingers, now bloodstained.  No, it was impossible, but something was happening!  Her index finger gestured for him to come closer, but he managed to hold his ground.  It was madness.  In desperation and terror, David felt for the reassurance of his holstered service weapon, but it was gone.  Suddenly, his hand fell unexpectedly upon his grandmother’s familiar rosary, the one he sometimes kept in his pocket.  Something like a distant bell sounded from far off, and the icy chill of the room began to melt away. 

Questions and Answers: Karl and Karl

Q: What's a fiction passage you've read recently that you not only loved, but that somehow conveys something important about how you think about the art of writing?

A: I love Flannery O'Connor, and one thing I love about her is that her characters are real to me; they're authentic.  It's so hard to find characters I can connect with in a lot of modern fiction.  Flannery O'Connor has my attention at her first word.  Here's a passage from her short story "Revelation" that I am particularly fond of.  (It's not quite the same unless you read it in its entire context.)  

The book struck her directly over her left eye. It struck almost at the same instant that she realized the girl was about to hurl it. Before she could utter a sound, the raw face came crashing across the table toward her, howling. The girl’s fingers sank like clamps into the soft flesh of her neck. She heard the mother cry out and Claud shout, “Whoa!” There was an instant when she was certain that she was about to be in an earthquake.

Q: Why else is it important to visit the areas about which you want to write?

A: Another reason is that people are so different from place to place.  Having a conversation in Joseph, Oregon is entirely different than speaking with someone on the streets of downtown Seattle.  Authors who don't take the time to understand their settings, also usually fail to understand their characters.

Q: This Kickstarter thing of yours is kind of annoying.  Why are you doing it?

A:  Sorry!  I’m doing it because the publishing market has changed so drastically over the last decade.  This seems like a legitimate option to help an author bridge the gulf between the children’s market and adult fiction.  (I always have to mention now that, no, I don’t mean that kind of adult market.  I mean older readers, folks!  I also don’t plan to start writing romance novels…)

Q: What’s in it for me?

A: Well, I think crowd funding is a rather cool way to raise funds for projects close to people’s hearts.  It brings a sense of shared community and purpose, and it allows people be a part of some pretty exciting endeavors.  I was happy to be able to make a (very) small donation to Sean Astin’s recent Kickstarter success  for example, and I found it pretty rewarding to have played a tiny, tiny part in that project’s success.  

In my case, it’s only a novel, but I think in the right hands, this book could go far.  I will also say that I am always happy to help a fellow author with a similar venture down the road—if I feel that I can connect with their tale.  Some types of fiction are hard for me to enjoy, but I will do my best!

Q: I know your one of the original founders of the Catholic Writer’s Guild.  Has this book been awarded their Seal of Approval?  

A: No, unlike Tristan’s Travels, this book has not received this important stamp of approval.  There are a lot of reasons why I didn’t want to rush into that too early.  For one thing, the novel requires a strong editor’s hand.  I’m learning it takes a special author to successfully edit his own work.  Many self-published authors end up embarrasssing themselves with a wyde variety of editorial problemzs.  

My use of a hybrid press, such as Inkwater, is an effort to create the highest quality work I can possibly create.  Another reason is that the content of the book strives for realism, and realism isn’t always pretty.  In my younger days, I spent countless hours racing along as an observer with police officers in Washington State—from Yakima to Seattle and Port Townsend.  It was awesome for a young man to experience the excitement tearing down dark streets with lights and siren (at close to a hundred miles per hour a few times), and those experiences really helped shape my novel.  Realistic scenes and characters are always my goal.  I’d also add that, as author and teacher Regina Doman has pointed out, the Catholic reader is sometimes…a strange duck.  More on that another time perhaps.

Q: Are you planning to write a sequel?

A: YES, but I haven't started yet.  :)

If any of the preceeding content caught your interest, I hope you will check out my project on Kickstarter!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Beginning at the Middle

Cover art for "The Blood Cries Out"
Since I am pursuing a non-traditional publishing route, it seems only fitting to explain the non-traditional origins of my new novel.  The article originally appeared in Savvy Authors, but it is not currently found anywhere else on Google.

As Anne Lamott reminded us in her enlightening and engaging book about writing and living, Bird by Bird, the best way to approach an overwhelming project is often to break it up into its smaller component parts.  This has a way of transforming the seemingly impossible writing task into something that just might work.  A couple years ago, a co-worker shared a piece of dark family history that sent chills down my spine.  For a person like me whose writing usually contains a spiritual dimension, that family history was something I wanted to find a way to incorporate within fictional context, most likely a mystery novel.  The problem was, after obtaining the family’s permission, I had no precise idea where to begin. 

I tried the “traditional” approach of story outlining and character sketches, but I didn’t want to begin to write the story until I head a better idea of who and what I was writing about.  In the past, beginning a tale too early has only served as the story’s death knell.  There’s something about putting it to paper that solidifies or cements those words.  In my mind, at least, it’s better to avoid a few re-writes at the outset and delay seriously starting the tale until it’s really had a chance to ferment in one’s mind.  Of course, this doesn’t mean that you’re not scribbling down notes all the time.  Still, there’s something fundamentally different about outlining the story or jotting notes on character development and actually writing the opening paragraph of the tale.  My own over overabundance of caution was seriously delaying me from moving forward with this challenging project.

About this time, an unexpected e-mail arrived from a small publication in Kildaire, Ireland.  Having read and enjoyed a short story of mine entitled “The Stars Within the Glass,” the writer was inquiring if I could supply a short piece of original fiction for use in a publication.  I have to admit that this idea did not sound terribly appealing at first.  After all, it represented a potentially significant time investment for a relatively small publication.  It occurred to me, however,  that perhaps I could use the request as a motivator--i.e. kick in the pants--for starting work on my novel.  The question was, yet again, where to begin?

After some thought (and a little procrastination), I decided to write a short story from roughly the middle of my outlined novel.  My idea was something along the lines of a serialization of a piece of larger work of fiction--except nothing had been written previously.  The story ended-up being about a chapter in length, and, at this point, it should conclude part 1 of my planned two or three part novel.  When this short story soon appears in print it will be a streamlined version of the chapter to come, since not all details are really necessary in a trim short story.  If all goes according to plan, this short story, then, will someday be a chapter within a much larger work.  

What did I learn from this unusual approach to starting the writing of a novel?  Well, I don’t know if this is always a great strategy for getting to work, but for me it’s helped to see my characters more clearly than I otherwise would have so early in the process.  It’s also been an interesting way to elicit feedback on the project.  For example, I was planning to go one particular direction with the work, but several of the test readers who seemed to enjoy the short story the most expressed a sincere desire that the story would end up going a completely different way.  In fact, one of those readers is my wife, so I have to give their proposal some careful thought!  In short, if you’re having difficulty figuring out how to get started on your next book, you might just try beginning at the middle.