So long 2018, the year of “Stargate”

Screenshot_20181230-205450On New Year’s Eve 2017, I was sure that this year was finally going to be the year of Once Upon My Mind. Instead it sort of turned out to be the year of Stargate instead. I watched the original 1994 movie on New Year’s Day with my dad, watched all 10 seasons of SG-1 and 5 seasons of Atlantis over the summer, and ended the year seeing Aquaman with Ronon Dex in Atlantis once again.

While this wasn’t the most productive year for my own writing until after returning home from the JASNA AGM, I gleaned a lot of ideas about satisfying story-telling from the SG-1 team, the Atlantis expedition, and their wide casts of memorable supporting characters that reinvigorated my muse during my “Jane Austen in Bath” period. Here are just a few examples:

It’s okay to have a formula at the start

Stargate SG-1 lasted 10 seasons with over 200 episodes, and that was mostly due to the fact that they had a pretty unshakable formula: The team goes through the Stargate to another planet. Something’s wrong on that planet. They have to solve the problem before they can go home. The End (until next week.) Later episodes were able to go beyond (and make fun of) this basic premise because they had the characters and situations developed within this formula as a foundation.

One of the main reasons I held off on starting Time and Tenacity, Volume II for so long is because I thought, “They can’t just lose the time machine again.” Then, in Kansas City, thinking in part of Stargate, I thought “Maybe some plot elements just get used over again because they work.” In the process, I actually found that using my own formula as a launching pad helped me develop some fresher complications for my time-travelers.

Let everyone participate in the “magic” as much as possible

One of my least favorite episodes of SG-1 was one in which all the male members of the team switched bodies and the team’s only female member, Samantha Carter, was the one who figured out the solution to switch them all back. The writers probably thought they were being really empowering by having Sam be the one who saved the day, but honestly, as someone who got into writing in part because I wanted more women to travel in time or save fantasy kingdoms, I just really wanted to see Sam switch bodies with someone too. In fact, my favorite episodes of the series were the ones in which Sam was just a normal part of the team instead of being the strongest, smartest, etc.

As I was realizing this, I also realized one of Rachel’s team members in the Once Upon My Mind series was being reduced too much to the character who just reacted to watching magical things happen to the others, and a lot of that was a result of her character being severely underdeveloped. So she got the double benefit of much more character development and a more fun role in the plot!

In the words of the Doctor, let “everybody live” once in a while

2018 was a year marked by personal loss for me, as it was for many others. While addressing death in writing is an important and at times necessary thing– I wouldn’t have stuck with Once for more than 15 years if I didn’t believe that– I found part of what kept making me want to watch another episode or four of SG-1 and Atlantis every day was that were episodes when it looked like one of the characters was going to have to make a sacrifice or be the ultimate demonstration of the danger everyone was in that things pulled together so they lived in the end. Even characters who did die sometimes came back in a sense, through science-fiction ways including clones or alternate universes, for some amount of closure. A story can still be deep and meaningful without killing any characters. After all, isn’t part of the reason we watch and read stories is because they’re better than real life?

Michael Shanks makes every story 10,000 times better


Okay, I haven’t figured out how to apply this one to my writing yet, but I’m working on it…

2018 wasn’t the year I had hoped for in many ways, but many constructive lessons resulted from it that I will be able to carry into 2019 and beyond.  I’m excited to spend the beginning hours of 2019 working on three new projects. I’ll share some more about them soon, but until then, I hope your New Year’s celebrations are safe and most diverting, and this new year is the continuation or the start of a new productive time in your life.




The Making of Time & Tenacity Part 3: What’s in a Name?

(New to this blog? Here’s Part 1 and Part 2. Also, welcome!)

alsojaneSo now that I knew who they all were, I needed to give my Time and Tenacity characters names. By the end of writing, Jane and Colin were the only characters who had the same name consistently. In one version, Cassandra, Eleanor, and Isabella were Eleanor, Emma, and Cassandra, respectively. I decided Cassandra was a better fit for Jane’s oldest sister, just like Cassandra Austen was Jane’s real-life older sister. Eleanor had the same first two letters as Elizabeth, and Isabella seemed like a good fit for Jane’s slightly bratty younger sister since it remains a fairly common name amongst preschoolers. Incidentally, all of my Regency characters had first and last names that are used somewhere in Jane Austen’s writing so I’d know for sure they were authentic (no Kevins hanging out in 19th century England!)

Even though it’s a bit cliché to name the heroine of a Regency-set novel Jane, it just fit in so many ways, from the character being a writer to Jane being a deceptively “plain”-sounding name compared to her sisters’. Colin and Brittany would be the only characters that kept their counterparts’ surname to better assure readers that Colin, and not Eleanor’s awful first husband, was Mr. Darcy’s counterpart; from there, the line “Colin Darcy, and yes that’s my real name” basically wrote itself.

As for the rest of the main characters:

  • My father’s name is Charles and his father’s name was Ed, so in my mind at least Charles Bingley translated pretty naturally to Edward Phillips.
  • Anna Kelly is a reference to the actresses who played Caroline Bingley in the 1995 and 2005 adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, respectively, as well as a reference to Anne de Bourgh, since she is engaged to Colin (though more formally so in Time!)
  • Gillian was the name of a super-nice librarian I worked with during my practicum for my MLS who was originally from England, so it was the first name that came to mind when it came time to name a British woman. Besides the obvious Pride and Prejudice reference, I also liked Bennet because it sounded like another favorite time-travelling doctor of mine.
  • Riley was a modern name that would stand out from the Regency ones, while Granger sounded old-fashioned enough that he could blend in in the 19th century.
  • Brittany is my favorite Chipmunk… just kidding, I unfortunately have no interesting story behind her other than it was a popular name in the 1990’s.
  • Fly’s name was originally Samuel, but I chose Francis instead because I could use it for three different generations of Jennings men with every generation having a different variation: Sir Francis, Frank, and Fly. Fly was also the nickname of Jane Austen’s brother Francis as a young child, a discovery that also helped me unlock a major aspect of Fly’s character: that he can run really fast.
  • David Andrews is a reference to writer Andrew Davies, who has adapted four of the six Jane Austen novels, and who, like David is Welsh.

Thanks so much for reading this little tour through the making of Time and Tenacity! What part of the writing process are you the most curious about?


“Mary Poppins Returns” and teaches me a few things about writing in the process

Poppins_BLOGHolidayPreviewI’ve been looking forward to the new Mary Poppins Returns movie for two years since the casting announcements of every favorite actor of mine started pouring in while my mom was first hospitalized. The original Mary Poppins was one of my very first movies, a formative influence on both Time and Tenacity and Once Upon My Mind, and one of the very few movies that’s held up to repeated watchings for me. And the new film is lovely and diverting in so many ways, including lots of fun little Easter eggs (as well as the much-promoted appearance by Dick Van Dyke, look for a brief cameo by the original Jane Banks!) and catchy songs (My toes were tapping in the theater along to “Trip a Little Light Fantastic.”)

As I suspected for months, however, the film is a little Mary Poppins: The Force Awakens. They go into an animated world! They all go visit Mary’s eccentric family member who’s played by a beloved character actor! There’s a disastrous trip to the bank, followed by a big dance number by the male lead and his career mates!

There’s actually nothing wrong with un-originality (as long as it doesn’t cross the line into plagiarism, of course.) We might grumble that nothing seems new anymore, but secretly I think we find it fun and comforting when stories hit familiar beats. Why else would Hallmark Channel Christmas movies be so popular? The weakness of Mary Poppins Returns, however, isn’t that it copies but that it copies in a just-for-the-sake-of-being-there way that makes many of the scenes feel artificial. (Please note some minor spoilers for both Mary Poppins films follows.)

The example that stood out the most to me is the animated scene. In the original Mary Poppins, Bert draws a chalk picture of the English countryside. The kids, Jane and Michael, ask if they can go visit and Mary takes them into the chalk drawing. A day in the English countryside, including a horse race, a fox hunt, and taking afternoon tea at a restaurant staffed by penguins, follows. Not the most dynamic stuff, but none of it pops out of nowhere. The two songs in this animated sequence come organically as well: “Jolly Holiday” is sung by Mary and Bert while they’re strolling delightfully through the countryside and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious“– which I spelled right on the first try, hooray!– is the result of one of the cartoon countryside denizens asking Mary how she feels about winning the horse race.

In contrast, the animated scene in Returns is spurred when the new kids, Anabel, John, and Georgie, break a Royal Doulton china bowl that belonged to their late mother and have to go into the bowl to fix a wheel that has come off the pictured carriage. Not a bad start, but the wheel is fixed almost immediately once they arrive. Something a dear beta reader told me on Once Upon My Mind is that nothing should ever work out that easily! The characters decide to stay and explore the world of the bowl some more and end up at a music hall, which is nothing but a stage to set another musical number on. There is no organic reason why Mary and her new sidekick-in-magical-poppinsadventuring Jack would suddenly decide to sing a 1930’s British music hall style song except that everyone wants them to. The whole sub-plot of the animated sequence could be finding the part to fix the wheel, and if the filmmakers really had their hearts set on doing a music hall number, maybe Mary and Jack could have been confused for music hall singers along the way. (Stranger things have happened!) They could have even kept the foreshadowing with the wolf– the one rather clever part of the whole cartoon sequence– by having him offer his assistance in repairing the wheel.

I say all this not to be a Grinch who ruins your holiday movie-going, but rather to say that all this musing helped me realize another missing piece in the mystery of what has held up Once Upon My Mind for so long. I love making lists to help me in my writing, and last night I made one of the essential and non-essential parts of Once. All the essential parts were emotional beats in the story (my protagonist learning to accept the unavoidable bad in life along with the good, for example), while all the non-essential parts were characters and complications she ran into on her quest for the book’s MacGuffin. I am, as a result, now in the process of reshaping Once into a story where everything that happens comes naturally from the story-line and the two worlds my characters inhabit, and don’t just happen to pad out the plot.

I was hoping 2018 would be the year of Once Upon My Mind, only for it to turn unexpectedly into the year of Stargate instead (more about that to come!), but on the top of my 2019 “to-do” list is to get Once  into your hands as soon as I can. Until then, I hope you have a wonderful holiday weekend and whatever you choose to divert yourselves with is a small reflection of the hope, joy, love, and peace of the season.


My Most Excellent NaNoWriMo Adventure

YWP-NaNo-2018-Winner-BadgeI have a dark secret, my friends: I am probably the world’s most undisciplined writer. (Though you may have already figured that out looking through this blog’s history.) The approximately two-year period of my life from August 2016 to this September– when I was working through the illness and subsequent loss of my beloved mom and six months of grand jury duty for my home county to top it off– in particular seemed like my personal “Jane Austen in Bath” period.

Then this last month, I was an assistant instructor in my local library’s Young Writers Program for National Novel Writing Month. I previously participated in NaNoWriMo in 2015 and ended the month having written less than 2,000 words of the 50,000 word count goal (though November 2015 turned out to be one of my most productive months for working on Time and Tenacity— I suppose I do thrive on contradicting my own careful plans!) One of the benefits of being an instructor, however, is that I could set my own word count goal, just like the kids. 

So I decided on 25,000 words and dusted off one of my long-lingering ideas: a middle-grade novel about Cinderella’s pet cat. It looked for a while, especially after I got a sinus infection, like Cinderella’s cat was doomed to the rubbish heap with all my other un- and under-developed stories. I ended up having to slash 10,000 words off my final word count goal, but I forced myself to write at least one scene everyday in November even if it was ridiculous (and there were some pretty ridiculous scenes, including a pillow fight and a house made of chocolate.) It all paid off on November 29, 2018, when a tiny little trumpet played on my computer and little gold trophies filled my screen as I was furiously typing away: I had met my word-count goal!

I still have yet to determine if Cinderella and her cat will someday make it to a bookshelf near you, but this success really feels like it officially marks the end of a long, sad dry spell for me. In October, after returning home from the JASNA Annual General Meeting, I started writing the long-awaited Time and Tenacity, Volume II and I have just started development on a Time novelette centering on a character I decided this year I gave a pretty rotten deal to in the first book. And of course, Once Upon My Mind is still very much always on my own mind. I’ve learned in the past two years that nothing can be guaranteed, but I am praying and hoping that all three will be available by August 2019. If the last few years have also been discouraging for you and your art, I hope that 2019 will be the year the “productive switch” gets flipped back on for you.

Did you participate in NaNoWriMo? Or have you done something else cool in your area of art lately? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!