Tag Archives: fantasy

Writing Quest Stories

  My fascination for quest stories began when I was in middle school.  At the time, our bespectacled young boy named Harry Potter wasn’t born yet. However, because I lived in India, I had the exposure to fantasy quest stories based on Indian culture. I read  Ramayana and Mahabharata epic novels, and stories from other Hindu texts. Those fantasy stories have been in the world for centuries, even millenia in some cases.

I often compare what I grew up reading to the middle grade quest novels of authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling. My brain is hardwired to pay attention to the common themes in the characters’ growth, and appreciate the similarities and deeper meaning in the journeys of the characters.

 

Quest stories make the characters seek something, and we as readers get to join them on the ride. In her book, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, Diana Wynne Jones describes a quest as “a large-scale treasure hunt, with clues scattered all over the continent, a few false leads, mystical masters as game-show hosts, and the dark lord and the terrain who make the quest interestingly difficult”(153). Therefore, the hero leaves her comfortable, ordinary surroundings to venture into a challenging, unfamiliar world where she encounters conflicts with antagonistic, challenging forces before achieving her goal.

In this post, we will take a look at two fantasy quest novels:

Where the Mountain Meets The Moon by Grace Lin    

and 

The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz by Frank L. Baum

We will focus on some of the common themes around plot, conflict and change that made these quest stories timeless reads.

Plot:

If you’ve been writing fiction for even a short while, you have probably heard or used the word “plot” in your critique conversations. In his book, The Plot Thickens, Noah Lukeman writes that “plot is not just about having a single great idea; on the contrary, a good plot is an amalgamation of many ideas or elements of writing, including characterization, journey, suspense, conflict, and context” (xv). Therefore, while an idea is important, a plot doesn’t exist without the supporting elements that make up the story.

In Where The Mountain Meets The Moon, the main character Minli sets off on an extraordinary journey of adventure and folklore to find the Old Man on the moon to ask him how she can change her family’s fortune.

In the Wizard Of Oz, Dorothy and her dog Toto are swept away from a Kansas farm to the Land of Oz by a cyclone.

Minli’s quest is to find the Old Man on the moon. Dorothy’s quest is to return to her home in Kansas again.

In both the stories, Grace Lin and Frank L. Baum spend considerable amount of time at the beginning of the book establishing their main characters’ normal life before they take off on their journeys. The authors introduce the readers to the secondary characters and set up the cultural context. The settings create a vivid contrast with the strange new worlds Minli and Dorothy enter. All these elements together make strong plot structures for the stories.

Conflict:

Story plots must always involve conflicts.  Philip Athans writes in his book, The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction that “unless your protagonist comes into conflict – in the broadest sense of the word – with someone or something, you have no plot, no story, and no novel” (25). Therefore, it is exceedingly important to put the characters in difficult situations that cause conflict.

In Where the Mountain Meets The Moon, the central conflict for Minli is that her family’s fortune is very weak. So she goes on an adventure to have a better fortune, make friends and bring green to the Fruitless mountain.

In The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz, the main conflict is that Dorothy thinks that life will be better someplace else (i.e. over the rainbow). She runs away from home, gets caught in a tornado, and ends up in another world. Finally, she is desperate to find her way back home.

Baum and Lin put their characters in conflict arising circumstances, and raise the stakes to increase the importance of their story goals. How Dorothy and Minli deal with the conflicts show us a great deal about their traits and personalities. They force the reader to take sides and keep reading.

Change:

In Where The Mountain Meets The Moon, Minli has a lively and impulsive spirit that is different from her parents. She makes friends along the way in her journey. She even befriends a dragon. But when Minli finally reaches home from the Never-Ending Mountain at the end, she realizes that all her questions are answered. Minli’s village is prosperous again, and she is thankful for her family.

In The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz, there’s an inherent change in Dorothy’s character when she meets other characters like the scare crow, the Tin Man, the lion, the wicked witch of the west and the wizard. In the end, Baum shows the change in Dorothy by having her realize that the special world of Oz must eventually be left behind if she has to get back to Kansas. This marks her decision to return to her home where Uncle Henry and Aunt Em live. The quest becomes meaningful when Dorothy returns to Kansas with a lesson from Oz. Dorothy finally returns to Kansas with the knowledge that she is loved, and that there is no place like home.

Even though The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz and Where The Mountain Meets The Moon were written and published at different time periods (1900 and 2009) and have different cultural references and symbolisms, Baum and Lin have made their characters embark on profound journeys that eventually lead them to self-realization and change from within.

Minli’s and Dorothy’s quests sum up themes that center around courage, coming of age, exploration, and family. The novels take us on fascinating journeys that emphasize similar quest elements of plot, conflicts, and change, which in turn give the characters growth and meaning.

And now, to jump into the world of quest stories, here’s a quick list of some recent books:

Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

The Conch Bearer by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Fish by L.S. Matthews

One Came Home by Amy Timberlake

My Side Of The Mountain by Jean Craighead George

Fog Magic by Julia L. Sauer

What are your favorite quest novels? What do you like about them? Share with us in the comments below.

 

How Do Writers Get Ideas?

question-mark Every time I do an author visit, I get asked this question, and I always stumble as I try to answer it. Most writers I know dread this question. How do we explain what happens in our brains? How do we describe the way everything we see, read, hear, and do generates story ideas?

Interesting ideas are all around us and seem to hop into our heads all day long. As John Steinbeck said, “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them and pretty soon you have a dozen.” Maybe the key is not how we get ideas, but what we do with them. Perhaps taking a peek into an author’s brain might clarify this process.

Say we walk into the grocery store and see a scruffy-looking girl with a backpack struggling to reach for a box of cereal. Nonwriters might think, “Poor girl, she looks a mess. I’m surprised her parents let her out of the house looking like that.” Or maybe, “I wonder where her parents are.” Some might judge her choice: “I can’t believe she’s picking that sugary cereal. Kids her age should have healthy breakfasts.” Caring souls might ask, “Do you need help reaching that cereal box, honey?” Suspicious people might wonder: “She doesn’t look like she can afford that. I hope she’s not planning to shoplift.”

dogWriters may think those thoughts too, but then their brains start racing. Hmm…what if she’s a mess because her family’s homeless, and this is their only food for the day? Where might they be living? In a homeless shelter? In their car? What would it be like to live there, and how did they end up there? What would a little girl like that want or need if she were living in a car? And the writer is off, plotting a new story or maybe even two. Perhaps all those questions might lead to a story like Barbara O’Connor’s How to Steal a Dog, where a girl living in a car is lonely and wants a pet so badly she decides to steal one.

Or the writer might think: That girl looks sad. What if her mom left, and her dad doesn’t pay much attention to her? Maybe she’s lonely and needs a friend. What if a stray dog wandered into the grocery store, and the girl tried to save it? Maybe similar thoughts ran through Kate DiCamillo’s head as she plotted Because of Winn Dixie, the story of a girl who misses her mother and adopts a stray dog.winn-dixie

Perhaps the writer notices the girl looks neglected. Her next thought might be: What if she looks so scruffy because her parents are dead. Maybe she lives with mean relatives who don’t take good care of her. But what if the relatives don’t realize she has secret powers? Hmm… what if she goes to a magical school and… Oh, I wonder if it would be better if it were a boy, and he goes to wizard school. The plot could easily turn into Harry Potter.harry

Another writer might think, That girl’s all alone. What if that older lady choosing a carton of oatmeal befriends her? Maybe the two of them could form an unusual friendship. Or wait… What if the old lady is a kidnapper, and when she sees the girl alone, she pretends to help her and she invites the girl back to her house and…

Or maybe the girl’s only pretending to look at cereal, but she’s really been stalking the older lady… Why would she do that? What if she thinks the lady is the grandmother she’s never met? Is it really her relative? If so, why wouldn’t she have met her grandmother? Maybe her mother ran away from home as a teen? So how did the girl discover the grandmother’s whereabouts? Will the grandmother be overjoyed to discover she has a grandchild? How will the mother react when she finds out?

And once again, several story ideas have formed in the writer’s mind. He can’t wait to get home and jot them down. Or if he carries a small notebook, as most writers do, he’ll scribble some notes in it. The whole way home, his brain will be whirling with what-if questions.

A fantasy writer might look at the girl and think: What if she took that box of cereal home, and a fairy popped out when she was having breakfast? Maybe the fairy could grant her one wish. I wonder what she’d wish for. It looks like her family needs help. Oh, but what if she has a brother who’s deathly ill? Would she give up her wish to save him?

Or the writer’s thoughts might run in other directions. What if the fairy was bad at spells and messed up the wishes? Wouldn’t it be funny if… Or What if that isn’t a backpack, but a jet pack? She could fly off with that cereal. But where would she go? And how did she get that jetpack in the first place? Once again, the writer has the seeds of plot or two.

We could keep going with story ideas just from seeing one girl in a grocery store. Now imagine living inside a writer’s head. Everything sparks ideas for stories. We’re always asking questions about what could happen. Or wondering why people do things. And everyone we see or meet becomes a potential story. Yes, even you. So beware when you’re around a writer. You never know when they might make up a story about you.

But what about you? Can you think like a writer? As you go through your day, ask yourself: Who is this person really? Why is she doing what she’s doing? What would he be like if he lived in another country or on another planet? What if that person is only pretending to be a teacher? What if she’s a superhero in disguise or a kid (or animal) who switched bodies with an adult? What if something magical or unusual happened to her? What if this person got into trouble? Who would save him? What does that person dream of? How could I make her wish come true in a story? What does that person need? What’s the scariest idea I can come with about this person? The most unusual idea?

Ideas are all around us. You don’t need magic to create a story, only a little imagination, a lot of curiosity, and many, many questions.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

A former teacher and librarian, Laurie J. Edwards is now an author who has written more than 2300 articles and 30 books under several pen names, including Erin Johnson and Rachel J. Good. To come up with ideas for her books, she people-watches and eavesdrops on conversations in public places, which starts her brain racing with questions. To find out more about Laurie, visit her website and blog.

An interview with author Delia Sherman on her latest middle grade fantasy

imgres-1Congratulations to Delia Sherman on the recently published The Evil Wizard Smallbone, and thanks for joining us here at the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors.

How did you come up with the idea for this book?
It began with a short story I wrote for an anthology called Troll’s Eye View, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. The theme of the anthology was to retell a classic fairy tale — from the point of view of the villain. As I always do when I want to build a good, juicy fairy tale retelling, I went to Fairy Tales From Many Lands, a book I’ve had ever since I can remember. I’ve long wanted to retell the story of “The Wizard Outwitted,” a Russian fairy tale full of shapeshifting and trickery and wizard’s duels (because, I ask you, who doesn’t love a good wizard’s duel?), so I did that. In 3500 words. Which didn’t actually leave me room for the wizard’s duel. Or, indeed, many of the things I wanted to say. So I thought some more about Nick’s training and development and went to the Blue Hill Fair (the very same fair Wilbur attended with Fern in Charlotte’s Web), where I talked to a trapper about gray wolves and coyotes in Maine and to a pig-farmer about pigs, and it all came together somehow.

There’s quite a bit of shape-shifting in this novel, and the descriptions are so vivid. Did you research wolves and coyotes, for example, to capture them so well or perhaps you have observed or spent time with these animals?
It was all research. My terrible secret is that I’m horribly allergic to all animals, and can’t have one and breathe at the same time. Which is why I suppose I almost always end up putting animals in my books—they’re guaranteed to be hypoallergenic. But I digress. I read a lot about wolves and spiders and rats and coyotes (and some other animals that I ended up cutting out because the book was getting too long. Nick turned into a crow once. I was sorry to see that go.) But I think my best source ended up being nature video on You Tube, where I learned what a rat sees and what the fox says, pretty much first hand.

What was the hardest thing about writing about wizards?
Figuring out the magic. I didn’t want it to be “Alakazam, wave my hand, you’re a frog”-type magic. And I didn’t want it to be too formulaic and scientific. I wanted it to seem as if it could really work and still be mysterious and wonderful. So I read about folk magic (think horseshoes for luck and salt to keep evil away) and formal magic (pentagrams and chants) and mixed them with things I personally think are cool (books that talk back to you and magical snow-blowing).

What was the easiest thing writing about wizards?
Stuff that is magic as well as used to do magic, like Smallbone’s coat and hat, Fidelou’s pelt-cape, enchanted bookstores and talking books. I’m sure I borrowed many of them from folk lore, from old fairytales, from books I read as a kid and don’t even remember reading, but they all felt as if they just showed up when they were needed, demanding to be added. So I did.

Are you a plotter or a pantser?
A little bit of both. When pantsing leaves me without anywhere to go, I plot for awhile until I can see my way forward, and then I go back to making it up as I go along. That’s the first draft, though. For all other drafts (Evil Wizard took seven), I have to make a plan, or I just make things worse.


There are so many surprises and unexpected reveals. How did these plot twists come about?

Now that I come to think about it, it has to be fairytales again. You read enough of them, you realize that one of the patterns is this: The hero has an adventure, which leads to another adventure, which develops a side-quest, which gets him embroiled in another adventure altogether. I guess I’ve read so many fairy tales over the years that that kind of thinking is just part of the way my mind works.

How much were you aware of both following the wizard apprentice tale type and how much did you consciously deviate from it?
Well, I was working off a fairy tale, and I have seen Disney’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and read The Sword in the Stone, although the Wart is not really Merlin’s apprentice. Setting the story in modern (more or less) Maine was a big deviation, as was Nick’s original complete lack of interest in being a wizard—or even believing that magic exists. I think what really happens when I retell a fairy story is that at some point the story I’m writing takes off from its roots and grows into something slightly different. Except for the wizard, the shape-changing, and the wizard’s duel, there are not really a lot of similarities between Nick’s story and the original.

This is set during a hardscrabble winter in New England, and it’s very cold and described so well. Is this a climate/area you know first-hand?
I began to write this story when I started staying at my friend’s house on the coast of Maine. I’ve never been there in winter, mind, but I’ve read books set there (also in Finland, which is very like Maine in many ways). I spent one of the coldest, darkest, and most uncomfortable years of my life in an inland town a long time ago, and I lived in Massachusetts for a long time, some of it in a house heated by a wood stove. So I do know plenty about snow, wind, cold, and even chopping wood.

Why did you write this book?
I haven’t the foggiest notion. All the time I was writing it, I kept thinking maybe I should be working on something else, that it wasn’t really the kind of book I write, that Nick was difficult and I don’t know anything about motorcycles or small towns (I grew up in New York City, after all). And yet, I kept working at it. I guess the real answer is that I’m a lot more like Nick than I thought.

The wizards in this novel are quite idiosyncratic. How did you come up with the idea for such a grumpy wizard (SmallBone) as well as his nemesis (Fidelou, the wolf wizard).
There are lots of grumpy wizards in literature. Even good wizards like Gandalf and Merlin and Dumbledore and Chrestomanci can be plenty crabby and short-tempered. Another thing wizards have in common is that they tend to be loners. You don’t read much about wizards with lots of friends and family (except in Harry Potter). So I just took that crabbiness to its logical extreme. Fidelou, on the other hand, is only interested in power. He wants it all, no matter what he has to do or who he has to hurt to get it. That, in my opinion, is what real evil is.

The main character, 12 year-old Nick Reynaud, can’t really read at the beginning of the novel. One of the main changes is that he learns to read and grow in confidence as well as security. How did the choice for Nick to be such a struggling reader come about?
Well, he says he can’t read; he can actually read perfectly well, and has a taste for science fiction and fantasy, just like his Mom. Still, I suspect he hasn’t read much until he gets to Evil Wizard books, partly because Uncle Gabe doesn’t have any books in the house and partly because he can’t see the point of the books he’s expected to read in school. He’s indignant when the bookshop gives him E-Z Spelz For Little Wizardz, but he reads it because he really, really wants to learn magic. I guess I believe that having a reason to read something is more motivating than just being told that it’s good for you.
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Hillary Homzie is the author of the Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009). She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page.