Writing fiction—what a life! You can choose any time, any place, any situation, then drop in characters you’ve created. A blank sheet is a good thing. It’s raw material that you can build a new world (or worlds!) with.
I’ve worked as a history professor and researcher. It was great, but it’s a job where you have to dig and search and make sure you have your facts straight. In fiction, it comes from your head. It’s harder than I thought, but much more fun.
Here are a few tips on writing fiction and where I draw my ideas from:
Write what you know and like:
Since I am a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel, my stories often drift down the familiar paths of experience. The book I am working on now is called The Stolen Soldier. The premise: In 2039 the West Coast is invaded by a vast army. The enemy kidnaps American boys and programs them to fight for them. Josh, a sixteen-year-old east Oregon farm boy, is one of the best of the stolen soldiers. Then he begins to remember his life before the invasion, and turns on the intruders and starts a rebellion.
I have other partially-written novels and story outlines set in this same WWIII world, most of which could be considered Young Adult because the protagonists are teens. For this book, I was influenced by Cruel World by Lynn H. Nicholas. The book is a broad account of children caught in World War II in Europe. Through horrendous trials, young people struggled and sometimes prevailed. I borrow some personality traits from these young (real life!) heroes to create my characters. If you are a writer searching for a model for some of the blackest villains who have ever lived, read about the Nazis in Cruel World.
Imagination & Creating Futuristic fiction:
Since my novels are set twenty-five years in the future, I have fun creating future tech: flying bikes, shield and stealth tech and limitless power supplies. The good guys are horribly outnumbered, so they have to use their brains and some exotic technology to have a chance. This area teaches you to explain your imagination.
Devour books and films:
A common tip indeed. Studying craft and stories in your genre is essential. My favorite speculative writer is Fred Saberhagen. He wrote the great Book of Swords series about nine magical swords and all the mayhem they cause. He also wrote the amazing Berserker series about massive intelligent robots on a mission to destroy all life in the universe. I have no idea why these books haven’t been turned into movies. If no one does it soon, I’m going to learn screen writing and attempt it myself.
Here’s a recent favorite. Brandon Sanderson’s Reckoners series. The premise is great: a stellar event occurs that gives one out of every thousand people superpowers. But there’s a catch—all the new “epics” turn evil and enslave normal people with their powers. The protagonist joins a small group of normals who vow to somehow take the baddy supers down.
Real life research + real fun:
I hope to get The Stolen Soldier finished in the next few months. Over Memorial Day weekend I road-tripped to eastern Oregon with my two sons for some fun and to explore the setting of my novel—high desert with lots of volcanic features like craters and lava beds. These experiences are useful for research and fun.
Don’t give up:
Good luck on your writing—the world needs great, positive stories, especially for kids to read and think about and learn good values from. When was the last time you went to a movie and you cheered at the end? When the credits started to roll, you were sorry it was over because it was so good. That’s the kind of story I intend to write.
SP: Thanks Pat for your tips and good luck on your novels!
Pat Schantz is a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel. He has a Masters in History from the University of Washington and Education from Western Washington University. He served as Asst. Professor of History at West Point and the Army Command and Staff College. He successfully taught Iraqi officers military intelligence. He is currently the Program Director for the Northwest Christian Writer’s Association. He has been around the world, but he insists the best place is where he was born and now lives, the Pacific Northwest.