Chapter 1: How I Got Started

Storytelling in written form goes back as far as Virgil and Homer and even the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh and Indian narratives such as Ramayana and Mahabharata, though the oral tradition of passing down stories dates far beyond that, before recorded time. Stories enrich our lives and increase our knowledge; they free us from our ordinary lives and transport us to a certain period in history, a certain place in the world, into certain people’s lives, and through stories, we live another life. I look back at my own life, and feel, even at age 27, that I have lived more than one life already. The memories of childhood are faded and old, and I wonder sometimes if it was actually me who lived them. There are moments when I wish I could go back and spend a day in summer, the last of daylight spreading across the sky, no obligations, no responsibilities, only the slow movement of time and the buzzing of the cicadas in the trees and the tumbling of water over rocks and my imagination.

When you’re a child, your imagination is boundless. I used to spend most of my time outdoors, and my friends and I created our own kingdom in the woods and called it Altonia. That is why I loved the book Bridge to Taribithia so much; it reminded me a lot of what I used to do when I was young. So even then, I was a storyteller.

In elementary school, I wrote a lot of stories. I found them not too long ago in a dusty box in my parents’ attic. They were written on wrinkled pieces of paper in notebooks, and it was fun to read them again. Most of the stories dealt with American history — even then, I loved history — and the expansion of the American colonists into the west. My stories had a lot of battle scenes, which is interesting, because I still have a great interest in military history, though instead of American history, I now focus on the study of medieval history, namely medieval England and France during the High Middle Ages.

When I decided I was going to write a novel, I was a senior in college. Throughout middle school and high school, I took creative writing courses and wrote a good many short stories, though in college, I got out of writing that for the first few years and focused more on advertising copy, and I even then had an interest in magazine writing. I don’t know what happened to many of the short stories I wrote in high school, though if I probably looked hard enough I could find them somewhere in another dusty box in my parents’ attic or on the hard drive of their still functioning 486 computer. Even if I found them, I would not want anyone to read them. You don’t want anyone, not even your parents (though your mom will read them anyway), to read anything you’ve written before your 18th, or 19th, or 20th birthday. Granted, I probably don’t want anyone reading much of what I’ve written after that, though some of it is respectable. Who knows how many short stories I’ve written in my life. It doesn’t matter; out of all of them, I maybe only like three.

So my senior year, I signed up for a creative writing course. My teacher was more focused on poetry, but I still learned a lot from him, and I credit the course with getting me back into writing fiction. One interesting note about my teacher: he studied poetry under Stephen Dunn, and Stephen Dunn studied under Robert Frost. I feel fortunate because Robert Frost has always been my favorite poet.

The summer of my senior year, after my creative writing class ended, I began writing my first novel. I thought I would try and expand from short fiction into a longer, epic work, and seeing as how I never felt like I could tell a complete story in such a small amount of space, I thought it would be a good challenge. My first attempt was an expansion of a short story I had already written, but it didn’t turn out well. I wrote for eighteen pages, decided I couldn’t write in that genre — it was more of a love story — and trashed it. Then I asked myself what my interests really were. I have always loved history, and since I had a fascination with the medieval period, I decided to make that my setting. So I began reading all I could get my hands on about medieval history, and at the same time, started writing. I had no idea what the story was going to be; I just started writing and let the story unfold by itself. That is one of the things I really enjoy about writing now: you never quite know how the story is going to go, so it often feels like you’re reading a story for the first time.

I had also recently read Lord of the Rings and had re-read Timeline by Michael Crichton, so those had a good deal of influence on my writing at that time. My story became kind of a blend of fantasy and history, without the magical elements often found in fantasies, but keeping with the traditional idea of epic battles of good vs. evil, light vs. dark. Putting the magical elements aside, I wanted to make my story real, gritty, and dark, with the details focused on historical accuracy to the medieval period: political and social and military structures, castle construction and their purposes, clothing, food, activities, sports, the church, etc. I also enjoy spiritual elements, in particular spiritual symbolism that is deep and not obvious, so I used that as an undercurrent to my novel. The spiritual elements are hopefully quite subtle, and something you will have to really look for to understand. I like C.S Lewis’ Narnia, but I didn’t want to make my spiritual connections so obvious.

I finished the first draft of my novel in a little over a year, and when I went back and read it, I hated it. So, I took the 350 pages and trashed it and started over. Since then, I had read a lot of other authors, in particular Bernard Cornwell and George R.R. Martin, and they greatly influenced the second draft and are still my main influences in my style to this day. I had also learned a great deal more about the medieval period, and I had many historical corrections to make. I still have some corrections to make and details to add, but that will have to wait until the third draft.

I finished the second draft in about a year and a half. It took me longer because the novel itself was longer, 500 pages up from 350. I had changed the plot significantly, though the basic idea of keeping with the setting and an epic clash between good vs. evil remained the same. I have actually kept the main character to this day from the first draft; his name is actually the same and his motivation is the same — many of the characters’ names and place names have been revised, and there are some I still hate that I want to change in the fourth revision — though I still can’t decide if I like the protagonist all that much. There are times when I like him and times when he is a little too dark and depressed, and I won’t know, I suppose, what I really think of him until I go back and re-read it a fourth time in its entirety.

Most of the third draft is written out on the back of printed out computer paper, with the second draft on the front, with ink marks scratching through entire pages and the re-writes on the back. My goal is to finish the third draft before years end. I only have some 160 pages left to edit, and sometimes I can edit several pages in a day, while other days I read what I have written and decide it needs to be re-written or that I need a new scene entirely. There is pain and frustration in writing, but also great satisfaction to know you’ve accomplished something even if no one ever reads it. Write because you love to write, not because you expect to make a living at it, though it is very much a real goal of mine to read my name in print, to walk in a bookstore and see it on the shelf, to see it listed on the New York Times Bestseller list. Such is the stuff of dreams, a child’s imagination as the last of the summer light fades from the sky.

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1 thought on “Chapter 1: How I Got Started

  • I think it was Hill and myself who were the true founders of Altonia, so let’s give credit where credit is due 🙂 Like Romulus and Remus, Hill and I created an empire for the ages. Unfortunately the demise of our kingdom was not due to infighting or invading clans, but by the waning of our child-like imaginations.

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