At the best of times, I am not the most patient of people. This was not the best of times. I was cold, wet, and hungry. I was tired– exhausted, even. I had watched a weekend that was supposed to be a welcome shred of rest go from bad to worse to something so unfathomably, irredeemably ridiculous that I could feel the hysteric laughter bubbling up the back of my throat. If someone said I looked like I was at the end of my rope, I would inform them that my rope had snapped sometime last week. Or I’d just cut to the chase and bite their head off.
Sometimes it’s just fun to write Miranda. Okay, scratch that. It’s usually a whole lot of fun to write Miranda. And the bit above is no exception. There’s a certain catharsis to getting inside her head when she’s about ready to start (or finish?) a fight, and if you said that might reveal more about me than anything else, I’d smile and shrug and admit that you’re probably right. And then I’d remind you that that’s half of what makes it so much fun.
So, recently I’ve come to realize that I’m actually pretty bad at writing physical descriptions of my characters. By which I mean, mostly, that I forget to do it. Because a lot of times I have at least some vague idea in my head of what my characters look like. Probably not as solid an idea as I ought to, but then, that feeds into the whole “bad at writing physical descriptions” thing.
On the one hand, I don’t think this is the end of the world, because even if I never say what color hair someone has, as long as I can reliably tell (or rather, show) you how they would react in a given situation, then I’ve at least got things moving in the right direction. For example, it’s far more important to know that Miranda’s first instinct is to punch a problem in the face (as opposed to, say, attempting diplomacy) than it is to know that she has brown hair. Which she does, by the way!
On the other hand, though, neglecting someone’s physical description while writing fiction can make it harder to fully and consistently flesh out a character. A character whose height tops out around five feet will quite literally view the world differently than one who is six-foot-six. They also might find it easier to hide in crowds. Or more difficult to convince someone that they’re a threat. Given that, it’s hard to argue that a character’s physical appearance is actually unimportant at all.
Which, if I follow my own logic, probably means that I should put a little time into actually writing down what Tanner and Miranda (and all the rest of my cast) actually look like. Because at the moment, I think the only thing I have written down in any of the stories is Miranda’s height.
“See if I let you go investigate anything on your own ever again,” I muttered. “‘I’ll be careful,’ you said. ‘It’s nothing,’ you said.” My mutter became a growl as I lost my footing on the steep slope and half fell, half slid a few feet down. Somehow, I stopped myself before tumbling off the edge and down the rest of the way to the canyon floor below.
Tanner wasn’t around to hear my rant, but that wasn’t about to stop me. With all the practice I was getting, once I finally got to deliver it to my brother’s face it was bound to be a rant to end all rants. It would remain unparalleled for all eternity. It would be the platonic ideal of a rant. Or at least one that would make him think twice about getting himself captured while gallivanting around without backup.
I tried not to think too hard about the fact that I was doing more or less the same thing.
Hey, look! An excerpt! This is one of the stories I’ve been looking forward to writing, mostly because it puts Tanner and Miranda in a situation that I haven’t played with much: on their own. But the question remains… do they get into more trouble when they’re together or when they don’t have each other to hold them back?
All things considered, the Duster Gang’s hideout was one of the best ones I’d seen. For one thing, they hadn’t set up shop in the Outlands, and I appreciated the change of scenery. For another, the panoramic view of the valley was truly impressive, and made moreso by the clear and cloudless sky: unless I missed my guess, that smudge off to the southwest was Coville itself. But the best part was the water.
There was a whole pool of it in the deepest part of the cave: cold, sweet water. As soon as Tanner and I saw that, it made sense how the eight scruffy miscreants we had tied up and disarmed in the mouth of the cave had been able to run their cattle rustling outfit for as long as they had. It was one thing to have enough water for a handful of people. It was another entirely to be able to keep twenty or thirty head of stolen cattle in good condition while you waited for a chance to sell them off.
Somehow, I managed to avoid venting my spleen until after we were out of Kemp’s earshot. Or until I thought we probably were. Or could argue to Tanner that I thought we were when it turned out he heard us—or rather, me—after all, and it came back to bite us. Not that he didn’t deserve every word I said, of course, but working with a butthurt and testy ranger would just be working for trouble.
So, I waited until we were out of earshot. Probably. And then I let loose with nine hours worth of frustration and righteous annoyance.
“…and he’s probably just working as a ranger so he can get filthy rich,” I finished. It didn’t sound right even as the words left my mouth, but I didn’t particularly care.
Tanner raised one eyebrow. “I’ll ask Paul next time we see him how that’s going for him.”
I glared at him. He would derail a perfectly good rant with a quick dose of logic.
“Alright, look. I’m the first person to admit that the last job got a little out of hand.” That was, of course, not strictly true. Or true at all, really, but admitting that would undermine the point I was trying to make. “But don’t you think this might be a bit of an over-correction?”
The “this” in question was the job that Tanner had just finished telling me about. It was a bit of a departure from our usual fare, if only because we wouldn’t be getting paid to do it.
“Actually, I’ve been wanting to do this for a while. We just couldn’t have afforded it until now.”
“So, you’re saying that letting Surr hire us was a good idea after all?”
Tanner narrowed his eyes. “No. And don’t push it. But we did, and there’s no reason we can’t make something good come out of it.”
He was baiting me; I could tell by the wicked twinkle in his eye. That, and he was my brother. It was usually a good bet.
“See, I thought having money in the bank account was something good.” Of course I took the bait. What else was I supposed to do with it?
“It is. But only because of what we can do with it.”
“I should have known you were going to go all philosophical with that.”
He grinned. “You really should have.”
I signed. “Fine.” Then I grimaced. “I don’t know if there’s any way to say this that won’t make me look like a heartless mercenary, but I’m going to try anyway.”
“You know, it’s never a good sign when you have to lead with that.”
I did know, but that didn’t mean I was about to let it stop me. “You have a point, and I’m not trying to say that we shouldn’t do this. I actually think it’s a good idea, truly. But this whole thing is going to be a bigger…” I waved my hands around and tried to come up with a better word than the one that first came to mind. I failed. “A bigger thing than the jobs we get paid for. If it all goes south, we’re not going to have a lot to fall back on.”
I didn’t mention that this particular job seemed at least as likely to go off the rails as the aforementioned and much maligned Surr job. Because doing so would invite a little too much scrutiny into the nature of a whole bunch of our jobs, and we’d need more time for that discussion. That was strange. If I didn’t know better, I’d think I was being the voice of reason to our little family enterprise. What was the world coming to?
“I’ve thought about that. And first, I don’t expect things to go sideways.” I opened my mouth to remind him that that was exactly how we were going to get jinxed, but he waved me off before I could get the words out. “But, even if they do, we’ve got enough people around here who like us now that we’d be okay. Heck, if we get hurt trying to help out the whole colony, Folks around here are going to make sure we’re taken care of.”
I narrowed my eyes. “You’ve been thinking about this for a while, haven’t you?”
“A bit, yeah. I just didn’t want to bring it up until we had the foundation to make it possible. Or at least something other than a patently bad idea.”
A part of me still wanted to argue the point. It might not be a bad idea anymore, but I wasn’t sure that meant it was a good idea. More like an idea that involved a whole lot of risk and not much in the way of reward. Not for us at any rate. The only problem was that while it wasn’t the best set of circumstances for us personally, if we succeeded in pulling it off, it was undeniably going to make things better for the colony as a whole. And that gave me the sinking feeling that the only reason I was really balking at it was the selfish thought that it wasn’t going to be worth our time. Maybe it wasn’t the only reason, but it was probably the biggest reason. And I didn’t like that.
And that’s how Tanner and I ended up offering our services to a group heading out into the deep Badlands with the intention of setting up some basic defenses for the group that was already out there figuring out a way to safely provide more water for the growing colony.
Now. Before we go on, let me do a little to mitigate some of the damage done to my reputation by admitting that I was less than enthusiastic about the idea of offering our services free of charge, despite how important an endeavor it was. First, despite the fact that it was deeply important, it wasn’t an urgent problem. Not yet, at any rate. But the colony was going to be growing. A lot. Maybe not this year, and maybe not the year after that, but construction was already well underway on a sister ship to the Overland, and as technology continued to advance, it was growing easier and easier by steps to reach this planet. And that was without counting on whether or not the Anchor station tests continued going as well as they seemed to be. Because once that was done, things were going to be getting even more crowded out here.
Add to all that the fact that we had already heard for sure that there was another big colonization push going on back on Earth, and it didn’t take a civil engineer to figure out that we wouldn’t have anywhere near enough water to go around once everyone showed up. So, instead of waiting until everyone was actually on their way and we were all living just short of disaster, a number of bright minds among the Verdant colonists decided to get together to do something about it before it became a problem. They had tried to get official backing from any number of the colony companies back on Earth, but hadn’t gotten more than what amounted to token support. Certainly, they hadn’t gotten the financial backing that would make it easy to pay for the time of a couple of freelancers at the going rate, and the defense system they had provided, while not terrible, was certainly not top of the line, either.
It just so happened that Tanner and I were going to be able to help with both of those.
“Miranda, get back in bed or I’ll break your other leg.”
That was my brother’s version of compassion for the wounded. But, as I was only ninety-nine percent sure that he wasn’t serious, I muttered something derogatory about his bedside manner and limped and crutched my way back to my sickbed and dropped back onto it. I also let my crutches clatter to the floor in a noisy protest. It was an exercise in cutting off my nose to spite my face, of course, since I was going to be the one to have to pick them up next time I wanted to get around the room, but for now, I allowed myself to take some pleasure in annoying my brother.
“I’m not useless, you know,” I said. “I can still help.”
Tanner didn’t turn around as he answered me. “Sure. Right until the pain meds kick in. We went through this yesterday.”
And the day before, and the day before that. Though, granted, yesterday had been the worst.
“Fine,” I grumbled. “But don’t come complaining when you can’t find any leads.”
So… it’s not a full story, and there’s no guarantee that this is the start I’ll be sticking with, but enjoy the first couple paragraphs of a new Tanner and Miranda story!
“Tanner,” I said, “you’re not nervous, are you?” The corner of my mouth twisted up in what could best be described as a wicked grin.
“I’ll be fine.” My brother cast a look in my general direction that was probably meant to chasten me. It didn’t work. “How long until orbit?”
“Orbit? Just a couple minutes. But it’ll be an hour or so before we rendezvous with the ship.”
He just grunted in response.
The ship in question was a derelict that had shown up above Verdant a couple days before. At least, everyone assumed it was a derelict, given that the scans we’d managed had shown minimal power and no one had responded to any of the messages sent on all the common frequencies. It was the sort of thing that would probably end up being a non-event, but was still just strange enough that it merited a closer look. And seeing as Tarj and all the other Rangers had their hands as full as always with things on the surface, that left it up to a couple of freelancers like us.
Which was how my brother and I ended up sitting across from each other in the passenger compartment of a skylark-class shuttle, strapped in and buckled up while a woman named Amanda Vasquez flew us up to orbit. Our gear was all secured as well, though in a smaller pile than usual. You packed different for a quick trip into vacuum than you did for a week in the Badlands.
I, for one, was looking forward to the change of pace. Tanner was somewhat less enthusiastic, as evidenced by the greenish hue his whole face took on every time we hit a little bit of turbulence.
“It’ll be better once we break out of atmo,” I said, trying to look and sound as sympathetic as I felt. “I promise.”
He spared a glance at me and forced his grip to loosen enough on his safety restraint that his knuckles went from corpse-white to panic-pale. “I know. I’m okay. I’d just forgotten how much I hated ever leaving dirt.”
Sometimes, I’ve noticed that certain stories demand a particular point of view in their telling. I can try to write them from a different viewpoint, but it doesn’t do any good; the words just won’t come. And it’s not just a matter of my being more comfortable with one over another, because despite the fact that I naturally tend to gravitate towards first-person-snarky, I’ve had an easy enough time writing stories in either first or third person. Some stories just need one or the other.
The example that most readily comes to mind is my modern urban (rural?) werewolf story that I’ve being toying around with to various degrees for years. I managed about 10,000 words on it, all in first person, but ended up getting stuck due to a lack of planning. So, I made it my NaNo project a few years back, but made the mistake of trying to switch it to third person. What followed was one of the most difficult NaNos of my life. The thing just would. not. write. To the point where I ended up burning out on the project, more or less.* Similarly, my rough draft fantasy novel from a few years ago, with its ensemble cast and epic stakes, was a better fit for a third person telling.
Now! Before someone goes for the torches and the pitchforks, let me state for the record that my saying that I can’t write a certain story from a certain point of view doesn’t mean that I think that it can’t be done. I have no doubt that someone can write a compelling epic fantasy from the first person (like The Black Company, for instance), I’m just not there myself. And besides, my epic fantasy is its own story, not the same one as The Black Company, so naturally, what works for one might not work for the other anyways. But that’s a subject for a different post.
It’s also interesting to note that, like its setting, a story’s point of view has a profound effect on the final story. Which explains why the wrong voice makes it so hard to write the story at all. The voice provides the overall atmosphere to the story, and if the atmosphere doesn’t match the content, the whole story is going to feel off. It’s like that scary recut of the Mary Poppins trailer (click here to see it); great for a one-off joke bit, but not an effective way to tell the original story.
Anyway! All that to say that I’ve found certain stories that I can’t tell with one point-of-view or another, and that it’s amazing how much easier it gets to write when you find the right voice for the tale. Which is why it’s so nice to write the Tanner and Miranda stories, because I know the voice that works for them, and I find it a fun one to use.
Speaking of, keep your eyes open for a new story (a Tanner and Miranda adventure!) going up tomorrow! Also, since I, heh, missed posting not one but two stories last month, you’ll get a couple of extras this month to make up for it. Until then, drop a comment below to share your own voice/writing related curiosities! **Edit: I lied! Not tomorrow– but check back on Saturday, March 7!
* Granted, there were other problems, too. Like the fact that I didn’t have a clear idea of the story I wanted to tell. You know, minor things.
Way back in high school, we had a unit where we studied American literary regionalism. (Click here for the Wikipedia article, if you’re curious!) I remember it being interesting, and our teacher tied it in with the idea that the setting of a story, when properly done, can be as much a character as any of the ones walking around on two legs. At the time, I thought it was a fascinating idea, but didn’t quite get it– certainly not enough to be able to articulate it all that well.
If I’m honest, that might still be true today, though I’m certainly closer than I was. At the very least, I’m close enough to start coming up with some theories of my own. In particular, considering how it relates to the ubiquitous advice to “write what you know”.
Now, as you can imagine, us science fiction and fantasy authors have a harder time applying that advice in its most boring sense. I’ve never been a freelancer on a distant planet, but that’s not stopping me from writing about a couple of siblings who do, so some folks might suggest that I’m not taking that advice to heart. That being said, I am one of several siblings, and I can guarantee that I’ve got the sibling banter thing down pat, so in that sense I am writing what I know.
Now, imagine you’ve got a locale you’re particularly familiar with. For me, that could be the Palouse area of Idaho and Washington: farming country, with lots of hills and fertile soil and not so many people. Next, add in the fantasy, magic, and adventure that I particularly enjoy writing about. Combine the two, and and you’re going to get a modern fantasy story set in the hills I grew up in. Probably involving werewolves.
Or, for those of you who watch Angel, you’ve got the same sort of thing with Los Angeles. It’s definitely set in LA… there’s just vampires and demons as well.
Basically, using a region that you’re familiar with is a fantastic way to write what you know– because as poor as that advice is when applied badly, you can’t get around the fact that it does have some truth to it. If you know something, you’re going to be able to write about it better. If, like me, you’re more the type who likes writing science fiction and fantasy, that’s probably going to look more like writing about relationships between friends and family than the the mundane adventures of a twenty-something-year-old. But it can also mean setting those same stories about the relationships you know in the places you know. Because it’ll make the story that much more real.