How it all started


Maid’s Hall: University of Guelph

So there I was, away at university for the second year, and still no idea what I wanted to do.

I’d started September of 1987 as a fine arts major, but after being dismissed as “an illustrator,” I flirted briefly with psychology before changing to music in January 1988.  In the fall of 1988, I had a rather disastrous classical guitar audition for the practical music program involving performance anxiety and was seriously considering English as my major.

I wrote music and book reviews for The Ontarian, the University of Guelph student newspaper, and helped them with layout.  This was the old fashioned layout with waxed prints of the columns that had to be precisely trimmed and placed on the board.  It was work that suited my wall-flower personality.

My roommate, Sandra Reynolds, though floundering similarly, always had more direction than I did and was a steadying influence on me.  Her sister is Susan Lynn Reynolds, who published Strandia in 1992.  She had drawn maps for Guy Gavriel Kay’s first novels.  He continues to be one of my favourite authors.  Sue’s ex, Michael Hale, had just published The Other Child.  Sandy was working on her own story ideas and with all of this creativity bouncing off the walls of our little dorm room I caught the bug to do more than record my dreams.

I’d started keeping a journal the year before, not only to capture my dreams, but also to capture insights I had in my classes.  It was a wonderful time for me intellectually.  Everything seemed to interrelate in the most interesting ways: my English literature survey course, Introduction to Psychology, Anthropology, Biology, the History of the Language and Old English courses.  Chinese Philosophy kind of blew my mind.  Sadly, little of it translated to academic success.  I was rather mediocre.

With all of these thoughts ping-ponging off one another in my head though, ideas started to occur to me, including the idea that would eventually become Ascension: Initiate of Stone.  I started writing notes.

Sandy invited me out to Mike’s place.  It was winter, snowy, and I ditched the car on the way.  A tree was mere inches away from the passenger side of the car and Sandy (!)  We were able to get a tow out of the ditch and made it to Mike’s, though late.  We still managed a lovely evening of creative chat, I got a tour of Mike’s graphics studio, and we made pie.  We all decided that since the crust was the best part, we’d make a crust pie.  It was fantastic.  Through Sandy and Mike, I learned some great techniques for character development.

I’ll share one:

Early in the character development stage, while you’re still getting to know them yourself, get together with some friends/fellow writers and have them ask you random questions about your characters.  Rapid fire.  You’re not to think about the answers, just come up with them and make notes as you go.  The idea is to access the inner writer who already has a handle on your characters and let that voice answer the questions.  The questions could be anything: what colour are his eyes?  What’s her middle name?  What happened when he was three?  What was her grandmother like?  Did he ever experiment sexually?  No question is forbidden.  It’s organic and very effective.  Nothing is written in stone, either.

If, in the course of your writing, some of those answers no longer hold true, or other answers that seem more appropriate present themselves, then the character changes.  Even to be thinking of these questions and answers through the writing process is helpful for your character development and therefore for the work.

Try it.  You may be amazed.

Sandy was taking Children’s Literature with the incredible Jean Little and Jean was bringing a friend into class to talk about her work.  That friend was Welwyn Wilton Katz.  Though she waggled a finger at me for my lack of research, I did get a chance to talk to her and was inspired by the lecture.  Subsequently, I started reading her novels, and became a fan.

By this time, I had one spiral notebook full and another started.  I had an old portable typewriter that I typed my essays on and started to type bits and pieces out in between essays.  I had no confidence however, and declined to show my stories to anyone.

My lack of direction in school eventually reached a crisis point and I decided to take some time off.

How did you get started on your magnum opus?  What or who inspired you?

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