Character backgrounds

Over on facebook, TLSandoval asks: Do you ever write extensive character backgrounds? If so, how do you go about it?

I don’t, mostly because when left to my own devices, I’m at the extreme “figure it out as I go along” end of the writing spectrum.

What I do to figure out my characters is … I start writing. As I write, especially in early drafts, I slowly get a feel for who my characters are. In later drafts, I take what I’ve learned in earlier ones and apply it to my characters more consciously–and more consistently.

Sometimes I’ll have a hint of a character’s voice when I start, in my opening lines. But mostly character, like plot, is one of those things I figure out as I go along. This is one of the reasons revision is so important to me–I’m a much stronger rewriter than writer, and need to get something very messy down on paper first. Revision is a crucial part of the whole process for me.

Sometimes I suspect that in my early rough drafts, I’m doing the same work that outliners and those who work out their character backgrounds ahead of time do, only in a very different sort of way.

Arizona and Iceland

susanwrites asks: Arizona and Iceland. You live in one of the hottest places in the US and appear to love it there and yet I know that Iceland also holds a giant piece of your heart. Can you connect the dots for me?

Heh. The short answer is, I’ve been trying to figure this one out myself. One could argue I wrote an entire book to figure out how two such different places could be among the most compelling places on earth for me, and wound up no closer to an answer at the end than when I started.

I do know that the warm weather was never part of the appeal of the Sonoran Desert for me–I fell in love with the mountains and the huge sky and the deep desert silences, and the heat was more like the price I had to pay in order to be near the desert things I did love. I’ve come to find the heat compelling too, in a strange way, but that took more time, and it’s still not one of my favorite things about living here–and every winter, I still hold out hope for desert snow. So I love the desert, but I don’t hate cold weather, the way many who move here do. (Though of course, I’ve only been to Iceland in summer–I can’t know for sure how I would feel if I went there in winter–though given that the winters actually aren’t all that cold, I suspect the long hours of darkness would be the real challenge for me–especially since the desert light is part of what I love about Tucson, too.)

I think part of finding both places compelling has to do with both the Southern Arizona and Iceland being edge environments–too harsh for lush forests (though actually, Iceland did have forests once),both the sorts of places where if the environment were just a little bit harsher, maybe things wouldn’t manage to live and grow there after all. There’s something about edge environments that pulls on me … something about the way the land is laid a little more bare that makes me just a little more aware of it, maybe. (Looking back, it turns out I talked a bit about both places being edge environments here, too.) Southern Arizona and Iceland are both places where the environment is very present.

I do remember the specific moments I felt both Southern Arizona and Iceland’s landscapes get a hold on me. In both places, my first instinct was to feel a little like I’d landed in an alien place that, while objectively beautiful, wasn’t a place where I could ever feel at ease. In Tucson, that changed the first time I left the city and went hiking in Bear Canyon–in a couple hours, with the trail beneath my feet and the rocks all around me, Southern Arizona went from being a place I was trying to convince myself I could live if I had to being a place I very actively wanted to live. On that hike I got my desert eyes, and the desert went from seeming brown and dead (I can’t even understand how I saw it that way now) to being … stunning.

By the time I visited Iceland the first time, I no longer required lush green trees for a place to be beautiful, partly because of living in Tucson. I found the land beautiful from the start, but even so something shifted for me when I visited Þingvellir, the rift valley where Iceland’s Alþingi, or parliament, used to meet. Walking between rock walls that looked like you could almost see how they’d fit together once, before the land pulled apart; seeing cracks beneath my feet where the land was shifting still–I knew, beyond doubting, that I walked in a place of power. Until this time, I didn’t even really believe in places of power (though later, I would think of my visits to the Cahokia Mounds, and know I’d felt that sort of power once before). Even then, I don’t know that I fully realized that the land had gotten a hold on me until after I’d left, and found myself literally having (sleeping) dreams about going back.

Fortunately, I also came away from Þingvellir with the opening paragraphs of Thief Eyes, so I had a reason I had to go back–though I think I would have anyway, sooner or later. And I hope, even with the book nearly done, to return again, possibly in a different season. Both my Iceland visits have been in summer, when the sun doesn’t set and the days are mild. Among the many things my time in Tucson has taught me is that if you only visit a place during it’s gentle season (as the snowbirds who come to Tucson for the winter and leave before the heat sets in do), you don’t really know a place–to understand and care for it fully, you need to know it in its harsh seasons as well as its gentle ones.

Thief Eyes playlist

akamarykate asked” Does Thief Eyes have a soundtrack? (I remember you posted a list of some of the songs you associated with Bones and I found it fascinating.)

I did create one for Thief Eyes, too! Actually, I created one for the very first draft and then, as I got to know the story better, created a revised one. Here’s the one I wound up using for the later drafts (it proved a good workout mix, too):


Dreams and Nightmares, Brianna Lane
“I could be your guardian/Armor tight and weapons drawn/But I have a feeling that you’re already safe and warm/Who do you want me to be to you?”

Walking Through the Fire, Mary Chapin Carpenter
“I know you’re scared, but no one’s spared when you play with matches/You’ve got me walking through fire …”

My Medea, Vienna Teng
“So come to me my love/I’ll tap into your strength and drain it dry … For you I’d burn the length and breadth of sky.”

Cold Wind to Valhalla, Jethro Tull
“Midnight lonely whisper cries,/’We’re getting a bit short on heroes lately.’/Sword snap fright white pale goodbyes …”

Be Careful, Patty Griffin
“All the girls sitting on the wire/One by one fly into the fire … Be careful with me.”

Honest Lies, Elisa Korenne
“Your lies are so honest/They give you away/They speak so earnestly/Of what you don’t want to say.”

So Nice So Smart, Kimya Dawson
“You’re so nice and you’re so smart/You’re such a good friend I have to break your heart.”

Someone’s Daughter, Beth Orton
“I wanna see your smiling face before the new day begins/You never know what it means to see/To see the sunlight in your hair and eyes and everywhere.”

Dead Men Walking, Janis Ian
“Who’ll die by fire?/Who will seek the flame?/Whose heart’s desire,/Has the most to gain? … Dead men walking in the world tonight.”

Blue Light of the Flame, Dar Williams
“Everything burns in our path/The balance we broke/Left us running through smoke.”

Love is the Ride, Lucy Kaplansky
“Love’s a roller coaster running on track/Don’t look down and never look back/Love is the engine that gets you up the hill/Love is the speed and the noise and the thrill.”

How Far We’ve Come, Matchbox Twenty
“I believe the world is burning to the ground … Let’s see how far we’ve come.”

The World’s Not Falling Apart, Dar Williams
“Welcome to the golden age of speed with grace/waiting for the angry gods to smite our race … the world’s not falling apart/because of me.”

The Atheist Christmas Carol, Vienna Teng
“It’s the season of bowing our heads in the wind/And knowing we are not alone in fear/Not alone in the dark”


As with the Bones of Faerie playlist, some of the associations are eerily direct, while others are so indirect that I suspect no one reading the book would see them except for me.

If nothing else, I’m pretty sure I’m the only person who, when she hears Love is the Ride, is now secretly convinced the song must mean a bear ride, even if it never actually gets around to saying so. But at this point, I kind of have trouble hearing it any other way. 🙂

_twilight_ asked: Any tips–other than stretching–about dealing with the discomfort of sitting for long periods of time?

I’m not sure I can be a lot of help with this one, because I’m lucky in that I don’t yet find sitting for long periods uncomfortable–though I am a natural fidgeter who does tend to be in and out of her chair a bit without realizing it. I know other people find adding cushioning to chairs (the seat and/or back) helpful, but I’m kind of weird in that I actively dislike too much cushioning on my seats, especially if we’re talking about detachable cushions that I then have to keep track of. (This causes some frustration for me in yoga and when getting massages, too, where the instructors are forever offering me blankets and bolsters, while I prefer to avoid them if I can get away with it.)

I do have achilles tendon issues that can make my heels and legs kind of stiffen up when I’m driving, and for that, it really does seem there’s no getting around stopping, stretching, walking around a bit to deal with it.

Anyone else with a career that mostly involves sitting have any ideas?

I do wish I could write and be in motion at the same time, because I do prefer moving. I find the treadmill desks I’ve seen pretty intriguing because of this, but I’m not sure I’m willing to go there (or that I have the space to go there) yet. 🙂

ladyshina asked: Mm. This isn’t deep or thought-provoking or anything, but what is the hardest part of writing for you? 🙂

I actually did have to think about this a little, because every part of the writing process has it’s difficult moments for me (certainly I can get angsty and worried about every part of it!), though overall I do find early drafts harder than the revising process that kicks in as I’m writing later ones–revision is often where I really begin having fun.

But I think the one consistently hard thing, at least for novels, is simply how much time is involved in making one. No matter how hard any particular part of the process is, I don’t think it would be that hard if you were only there for a few days … but often, when a particular part of the process is being difficult, I have to deal with that difficult-ness for weeks or months … and doing the same hard thing day after day is harder than just pushing quickly past and moving on.

Does that sort of make sense?

What do the rest of you consider hardest about writing?

Writing update and a semi-meme

Last week the TE revisions were been deemed acceptable and sent on to copyediting. It always (even when the revisions are relatively light, as they were this time) seems to take me about a week to return to full-brained functionality after a round of revisions.

Am now digging back into the Bones sequel–remembering the world and the characters and of course, what a leap of faith the early stages of a book always are for me.

In the meantime, I’m going to steal this from kateelliott (and others–but she’s the most recent on my friends list to ask):

Ask me a question. Any question. Or tell me what you’d like me to post about if you have specific topics or kinds of questions you’d like answered.

As I can, I’ll do my best to answer.