This morning, instead of my usual workout, I hiked out to one of my favorite viewpoints here in my home town (we sit atop the Cumberland Plateau) and I spent an hour taking pictures. The viewpoint overlooks a narrow valley which opens out into some farmland. The opposite slope is completely undeveloped and covered with white and red oaks, red and sugar maples, tulip poplars, shagbark hickories, and a host of other species of trees that I can’t name. In the spring I come here and take pictures of the forest as the trees leaf out in myriad shades of green. Today I was after fall colors, and they were wonderfully intense.
Visual artists do this quite often — return again and again to a spot they’ve painted or photographed, looking for different patterns, different tones of color, different qualities of light. My brother is a professional artist and he has countless paintings of the same farm or the same streambed which he’s painted at different times of day and different times of year. Paul Cezanne painted the Sainte-Victoire in Provence hundreds of times. My favorite works by Claude Monet are his paintings of the Cathedral at Rouen, which he painted under every conceivable lighting condition.
At first blush it would seem that this aspect of visual art has nothing at all to do with writing. But as I embark on a new fiction project I realize that with every new plot line, with every new character, I explore familiar ground from a slightly different perspective. When we try to put names to the spectrum of human emotion — joy, sorrow, anger, contentment, jealousy, indignation, fear — we eventually run out of words. When we think of the conflicts and life events that make for good stories — romance, intrigue, rivalry, betrayal — we soon find ourselves turning back to story points that we’ve used in past works.
It would be very easy to throw up one’s hands in frustration. This has all been done before. I’ve done all of this before! Except that of course I haven’t. Just as the facade of Rouen’s marvelous cathedral looks one way at dusk on an autumn day and utterly different at dawn in the spring, anger and love and fear change greatly when experienced by different characters. Romance and rivalry are nothing more than the inadequate words we have at our disposal to describe interactions that are as varied as the people they involve.
In fantasy, we have the added bonus of being able to move our stories to different worlds. A story of romance and intrigue set in the Forelands would look nothing like a story with the same elements set in Islevale, the world I’ve created for my new series. I could take a character I’ve created for the LonTobyn books and move her to a city in the Southlands, and her life would be unrecognizable.
But for me, the great variable is character. No two people will ever see the world in exactly the same way. And as I step into the mind of a new lead character, I feel my world view shifting to match what I know about him and his past life. Romance has a different meaning for this man, because choices he made decades ago have denied him the one person he ever truly loved. Hardship has a different meaning for him because the sixteen years he spent in prison have left him both calloused and appreciative of small pleasures. I could go on, but I think you probably understand my point.
Part of what makes writing so much fun, is that it enables us to find something fresh and exciting in emotions and experiences that might otherwise seem terribly commonplace. When we see the world through the eyes of a new character, the mundane comes alive, the familiar becomes exotic. The light shifts, the colors become more vibrant, patterns emerge that we hadn’t seen before. Characters, setting, plot — the variations are endless; there is no such thing as “ordinary.”