Monday, March 31, 2014

Secrets of the Vikings

I have always been fascinated by Vikings. As I was doing research for a possible historical novel about Vikings, I came up with some interesting facts which I'd like to share.

When the Vikings, or Norsemen, began raiding Britain around the beginning of the ninth century, the Gaels and Anglo-Saxons believed it was impossible to sail across the North Sea. They reasoned the Vikings had to have made a pact with the Devil in order to do it. If you know the secrets of how the Vikings traversed the waterways of the North Atlantic, you will realize that one does not need a pact with the Devil. Sailing the North Atlantic, even in small, open boats, is not as difficult as it seems.

Even though the North Sea has a reputation for storms, some months are calmer than others. The Vikings chose the best time of the year to sail, which is mid to late summer in that area of the world. The looting of Lindisfarne, which is thought of as the beginning of the Viking era, occurred on July 8. When a Norse fleet and army sacked the Gaelic fortress of Alt Clut, they did not return immediately because it was winter by the time fort fell. They camped at Alt Clut and sailed back home when the weather improved.

The Vikings did not sail directly from Norway to Britain or Iceland. The Shetland Islands were only two days sail from Norway with good winds, and the Orkney Islands only a couple days from there. From the Orkney Islands it's possible to see the coast of Scotland.  Also, the Faroe Islands are perhaps three days sail from the Shetland Islands, and a roughly equal distance from Iceland. From Iceland, it's a short trip to Greenland, then to Baffin Island, and then to Newfoundland, which they called Vinland. By hopping from one island to another, they could assure they were never far from land at any one time.

They could also predict the weather by observing cloud formations. They knew when a storm is approaching certain cloud types precede it, often by several days. If they saw storm clouds approaching, they could stay put on the coast until it passed.

Finally, they never sailed alone. Every instance of a Viking voyage I am able to find involves groups of ships.  The smallest number I can find sailing at once is three. If one ship got into trouble, the others could assist it.

This does not diminish the bravery of the Vikings. It takes a lot of courage to set out on the sea in a wooden boat perhaps fifty feet long, with no radio, no compass, and no global positioning system.  While it was still a daunting task to sail the North Sea in a small, open boat, it's not as unsurmountable once you know how.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

GMC for Self-taught Writers


Believe it or not, I've been writing seriously for five years now, but it has only been in the last couple weeks that I have learned about GMC. What really surprised me, however, was the number of people in the writing circles I frequent who had no idea either. This included many published writers.

GMC stands for Goals, Motivation, and Conflict, which must be in every story for it to succeed. The concept is actually very simple. The Goals are what the character wants, Motivation is why he or she wants it, and Conflict is what happens to interfere with him or her reaching the goal.

I think the reason many writers do not know what GMC is can be explained by using an analogy of auto mechanics. Many people learned to work on cars by attending formal vocational training and many learned by tinkering with cars in their parents' garages. Some started in their parents' garages and then took some formal classes to expand their talent.

Ideally, every writer has a Bachelor of Arts in English or Journalism and a Master of Fine Arts on top of that.  Someone with that education would certainly have learned about GMC very early in his or her studies.  Those of us who do not have English degrees have likely not had formal training in GMC.  We learned writing on our own, making mistakes and coming back smarter.

Most of us who are not specifically trained in creative writing come up with GMC for our main characters anyway, not being aware of what we are doing. So, if everyone eventually comes up with GMC for their characters, why talk about it at all? The reason is it's easy to get off track if we are not consciously following the GMC for our character. Using another analogy, while the captain of a ship may know the exact route to his destination and sailed the course for years, he still must monitor his course or he will tend to drift off it. Likewise, even the most knowledgeable writer must be aware of the Goals, Motivation, and Conflict of his or her character or he or she runs the risk of the character going off course and becoming less realistic and relatable. This is an area where seasoned and educated writers are in the same peril as newbie and self-taught writers.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

On Pleasing Everyone

There's a story that has stuck in my mind ever since I first read it in sixth grade, probably because the wisdom in it is so valuable.

A man and a boy are leading a donkey to market. They pass a group of people who say, "Look at that foolish man and boy.  Someone should be riding that donkey."  The man sets the boy onto the donkey.

They pass another group of people who say, "Look at that selfish boy, riding that donkey while his father walks."  The father lifts the boy from the donkey and climbs onto it himself.

They pass yet another group of people who say, "Look at that selfish father, riding on that donkey while his son has to walk."

At this point, the father decides the heck with them.  He climbs off the donkey and they walk the rest of the way to market.

Similar things can be said for pieces we write. I wrote a chapter and submitted it to an anonymous critique queue. I got one two word comment, "Nailed it."  I got another saying, "I have to stop here. This piece just isn't well enough written." Just reading the responses, you would wonder if everyone was looking at the same piece. Truth is, they were but the readers were different.

We'd all love to write a manuscript so perfect that every editor who reads it accepts it for publication and every reader who sees it gets riveted to the story until the end. It's not going to happen because everyone's likes are different. The same factor that makes one person love a manuscript could make another hate it. One person could pick up a story and say, "Great action, Awesome!" while another can pick up the same story and say, "Please, not another shoot-'em-up story."

I'd love to see an experiment run someday where Stephen King writes a story and puts it up for critique by people who have no idea he wrote it.  Most people will know right away it's written by a seasoned writer, if they don't recognize his style outright. Still, many I'm sure will reject it and stop reading. The reasonable objective is to write a story that anyone can enjoy, knowing not everyone will.