2/29/2008

The Hound, the Lamp Post and the Seabird

Hi! I'm Sherry Thompson. I joined LGG just a few weeks ago, so this time I'll just introduce myself and describe how I started writing.

The Hound, the Lamp Post and the Seabird

In midsummer 1970, I was a discontented psychology grad student, halfway between a messy break-up with a long-term boyfriend and a semester in which I would take physiology with no biology since high school while teaching psych statistics. During the day, I worked fulltime at the university library and tried to make sense of the physiology text. I spent my nights fending off the Hound.

The Hound of Heaven was after me though, prodding me to make a decision about what I really believed. Glenn and I had both been agnostics. I had been exposed to Christian teachings via Sunday School from about 3rd to 9th grade and then virtually nothing. For a long time, my only response to the prodding was in bookstores where I picked up books with religious-sounding titles while on the eternal hunt for fantasy books. I had read The Hobbit years ago when I was a freshman and followed it with The Lord of the Rings. Glenn didn’t care much for fantasy and I was extremely busy, so I let my new interest drop until that summer.

Back in 1970, there was little fantasy to be had in spite of the popularity of Tolkien’s work. Lin Carter at Ballantine had reprinted a line of old titles by Lord Dunsany and Mervyn Peake. I found Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus in the university library. There was C. S .Lewis but, you see, Lewis was Christian and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get into that whole “mess” of making decisions about things that might change my life.

I reached the point where I really had no other fantasy to choose from in our local bookstore, so I picked up all seven volumes of The Chronicles of Narnia. (I hate having broken sets.) When I was checking out, either the cashier or a customer suggested that I begin with The Magician’s Nephew because that way I would be reading the books in chronological order. I read The Magician’s Nephew that night and was captivated by the idea of a lion singing a world into existence and by a world so bursting with life that a fragment of a lamp post buried in its soil sprang to life. A week later, I went to an evening meeting on campus and accepted Christ as my savior.

Over the following years, I read everything I could find by Lewis and followed that with everything I could find by the other Inkling, Charles Williams. I searched repeatedly for fantasy books I had missed earlier and I found a few from time to time but Tolkien was just beginning to have an impact on the publishing world and I lived in a small town with a small bookstore. Plus, this was the 1970’s B.A. (Before Amazon)

Eventually, I decided to write a fantasy story. I had written a bit before, many years earlier and mostly time travel stuff, but this would be my first attempt at an actual novel. The first step would be to “become organized” and make a list of everything that my novel should have in it.

The Daydream Novel List went rather like this:

a heroine (who would actually be me),
no elves or dragons (maybe for fear of competing with Tolkien?),
wizards, but not like Tolkien’s;
a jump from one world to another (based partially on Narnia but running back to my childhood daydreams of time travel),
the heroine would not instantly cooperate about her visit or her role (aside from Eustace, everyone visiting Narnia seemed to just follow along);
an artifact, for two reasons—1. to be mysterious here on Earth and 2. at the end to be proof that it had all been real (I disliked the insinuation that Dorothy had envisioned Oz while delirious);
heroes who rode horses and carried weapons (a leftover from my early exposure to TV serial westerns;
a really –different- setting,
a sequel with overlapping characters.

I didn’t begin with an story outline—I hated making outlines—but just plunged in with Cara finding the as yet unidentified “artifact”. Each day, my novel grew by approximately eight sheets in my 8x5 spiral notebook. Sorry about the culture shock! This was before personal computers. I had a typewriter but I couldn’t carry it around so I opted for the notebook.

After a while, perhaps a week or two, my inspiration dried up. I had taken enough English courses to realize that I didn’t know what my characters wanted or where I was heading with my plot. Plot? What plot? My list of Stuph was all on the surface. What was going on inside? Staring at the wall established the fact that the wall had cracks and the room needed painting.

Since I was still something of a new Christian, it took a while for the penny to drop and for me to pray for guidance. I asked for help and promptly went into wool-gathering mode

What did I want? What had I been looking for at the bookstore? What had I wanted when I finished The Lord of the Rings? God wanted my salvation. I wanted another good story, not necessarily LotR II but a complex fantasy world with people I could relate to. I positively –loved- The Chronicles of Narnia but technically Lewis had written it for children. What a shame he hadn’t held off on The Last Battle and written more stories bringing in older protagonists from Earth…

Oh.

I “checked in” to see if I were on the right track, and felt I had the go-ahead. Along with it, came a flood of “new ideas”, which I should have considered critical from the beginning.

The Duh List.
The new list of necessary story elements included:

an actual reason for the protagonist’s presence on this other world (aka plot);
a varied cast of characters whom I must get to know intimately;
an agnostic teen or one struggling with doubts about his or her faith;
mistakes leading to regret and feelings of guilt; eventual reconciliation;
a world just as loved and saved by God as ours and Narnia—but in a different way; with a new representation for the Second Person of the Trinity;
the awe and delight of knowing God, shown as Lewis did it. Doing this meant a lot to me. In fact, this had become nearly the whole point of the exercise;
a deeply embedded yet subtle pattern in the setting and culture showing how this world’s reconciliation with God became possible.

And then a biggie, right out of the blue: An alternate history of the church beginning after the Incarnation, Christ’s Sacrifice and His return to Heaven where the abundant miracles of the Early Church would alter over time as needs changed. Enchanters would be called to wield these miraculous powers, each as granted from God. To the casual observer (or reader) it will look like magic but it wouldn’t be.

All of this subtly hidden in plain sight so as not to spook the person I used to be. No question: I was writing for all the other doubting or agnostic fantasy-readers like my old self who needed a subtle invitation to taste and see. If fellow Christians liked the book, that would be great but I needed to help those made nearly impervious to the call, by what Lewis named the Watchful Dragons.

I almost forgot one necessary element. Learning how to write. Sigh. I continue to work on the foundation for that one. I pray that my desire to share the joy of knowing God makes up for my abysmal execution of the message.

I used various plot ideas as testing grounds for my characters, jiggery-poking different elements until I knew what path I was supposed to follow. However, I was still missing a key element. I went to the beach on vacation and while I was there I searched vigilantly until I found it—a silver necklace shaped like a soaring seabird. My artifact, and the representation of Narenta’s Savior.


Under the Mercy,
SherryT

5 comments:

Grace Bridges said...

Fantastic! Thank you so much for sharing how your story grew. Like children, each one is different...

cathikin said...

Thanks for sharing your story and how God has drawn ou with fantasy. And now how He is working through you with it. We are all His Works-in-Progress.

Alice said...

Sherry, what a beautiful entry. It's a moving telling of a piece of your life's story, as well as a fascinating look into the writing process. Thanks so much for sharing it!

UtM, SherryT said...

To Grace, Cathi & Alice:

Thank you for your comments!
Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia has had similar effects on others.

Two years ago, I ran into an article titled,

"Longing for Other Worlds; Faith, Fantasy, and Orthodox Christians Today" by Douglas Cramer

(from an Orthodox Christian magazine, AGAIN: The Ancient Christian Faith Today, Vol. 27 No. 4, Winter 2005).

In it, Orthodox writer Katherine Hyde and writer Bev Cooke relate similar reactions to Narnia.

I strongly recommend the article for more than their brief comments! In many ways, it encapsulates large part of LGG's position when it comes to speculative fiction and Christian faith.

Here are two extracts from early in the article to whet your appetites:

"Stories invite us. ... We never know what to expect—anything might happen, anything at all. And two kinds of story in particular awaken in us this sense of infinite possibility—-stories of faith, and stories of fantasy. In this issue of AGAIN, we’ll be taking a jaunt through the landscape of story, particularly fantasy stories like those of C. S. Lewis, adored by so many Christians."


"I am a lifelong lover of stories, particularly the kind of story that goes by such names as fantasy, fairy tale, or folklore; legend, heroic fiction, or speculative fiction. The first Christian role models I encountered were not family, or clergy, or saints, or even biblical characters. They were the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table. Ever since, my faith in God and love of imaginative stories have been bound together, and in this I am hardly alone."


To read the rest, go to:

http://conciliarpress.pinnaclecart.com/index.php?p=page&page_id=again_cramer_longing_for_other_worlds


Or make it easy on yourself and use this Tiny Url:

http://tinyurl.com/2rx9hg


Oh, just so there's no confusion, I'm not selling subscriptions to Again magazine, nor am I Orthodox, nor am I C. S. Lewis. But you already knew that last part.


Under the Mercy,

SherryT

p.s. Maybe I should offer this article cite for discussion on the list? Is that suitable?

Mike Dunne said...

Sherry,

As always, a pleasure to read what you write :-)

Some of your points hit very close to home as I try to wrestle my own "novel-child" to the papyrus.

I am so glas that you were advised to read the Magician's Nephew first. To me, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, while still an engaging read, would have made A LOT less sense had I not read the Magician's Nephew first.

Frankly (I know, I'm not supposed to open sentences with whatever you call those words), I don't know why they haven't made "Nephew" into a movie yet. For Pete's sake, how many versions of LW & W have we been subjected to? But I have never seen TMN on film.

Oy vey!