Of Witches, Neanderthals and Bending the Truth: The Challenges of Writing Fiction and Why a Dystopia?

architecture, building, high-rise

I’m not a very abstract thinker. Or writer. At least, not spontaneously. There are steps to things. There are rules. One cannot learn a dance without learning each move, step-by-step. Or compute an algebra problem without scratching out each progressive calculation on paper. There is a beginning, an end, and the logical process in between.

You cannot start reading about American history without starting with a broad overview of Precolonial native tribes, like the Virginia Algonquians, then working your way through Jamestown, Plymouth, and the paralleling conditions in England and Europe that spawned the colonization of British North America, and the exodus of the Puritans, eventually getting stuck at the Salem Witch trials of 1692. Seriously, this is how my mind works. I read seven-and-a-half eBooks last year about Pre-colonial and Early American History (among others), and I was just getting warmed up. I still have a huge book detailing the firsthand accounts of the Salem Witch Trials that I purchased in Salem this last summer at The Witch House, the only remaining building from the 17th century in town, and directly connected to the trials. And then there’s Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, And Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial VirginiaWomen Before The Bar: Gender, Law, and Society in Connecticut, 1639-1789, and moving west, A Journey Into Mohawk And Oneida Country 1634-1635. Can’t leave those out.

If I took anything away from my experience of leaving Mormonism, it’s a rabid thirst for historicity. The convoluted, nitty-gritty, quirky details of any time, place or people. What a drama to unfold! It’s like taking a road trip and stopping at all of the random roadside attractions. Only you aren’t in danger of being kidnapped or having your limbs hacked off by a chainsaw. Any place on the planet, during any period of recorded history, you can zero-in infinitely. You could study the lives of orphaned dwarfs of Swedish descent in Australia in the 1850’s. Not saying you would. But you could.

Speaking of nitty-gritty details, did you know that interbreeding between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals is no longer considered a fringe theory like it used to be? A plethora of DNA evidence implies what was merely speculation for some time in the scientific community. According to the Smithsonian Institute, “Neanderthals have contributed 1-4% of the genomes of non-African modern humans”.  I once did a review paper on the leading research surrounding Homo neanderthalensis for my Evolutionary Biology class at Utah State. I basically wrote a paper about research papers, with enthralling, juicy questions, like: What’s the word on our closest extinct relative? What caused their demise? Was it just climate change, or was there more going on? Why did we survive, but not them? What did archaeological evidence of art and culture suggest about the species? Was this practice of making ornamental objects and burying the dead widespread among all Neanderthals or only in a few groups. How did they interact with modern humans. Yes, there was hybridization, but how exactly that happened is another puzzle. Who is shacking up with whom? Only mitochondrial DNA will tell, am I right? Fascinating.

Do I bring this up to brag about my interest in mind numbing scientific research? Maybe…but not really. My paper was probably a B at best. I don’t remember, it was forever ago. I’m bring this up to underscore how out of my league I am in trying to write FICTION!!! Like good, creative-but-not-over-the-top, poignant fiction.

My idea for writing a dytopian novel stemmed from some personal WTF moments when falling through the rabbit hole of obscure Mormon history. Let’s just say there are things you don’t find in the Sunday school manuals. I was devouring all the information I could about the Church, and I just kept thinking, You cannot make this up. This is straight out of 1984. The vision of my dysfunction future emerged from there.

Dissenting from the Mormon Church is my jumping off point for this project. That experience is the stock, inspired by weird Mormon history and modern aspects of the church. Beef it up with a kick-ass protagonist. Add some special insider nuggets for my fellow post Mormons. Keep it readable for everyone. Spice it up with artistic exaggeration to prove a point. Simmer it into a story that is gripping and original. Serve inside a bread bowl of post-apocalyptic biological warfare.

I just might pull this off! Or maybe it’s all crap. Who knows.

I started writing this book a couple of years ago. It reads like a history lesson. I have four chapters of a fictional history lesson, inspired by Mormon history. Go figure.

In Chuck Wendig’s The Kick-Ass Writer: 1001 Ways to Write Great Fiction, Get Published, & Earn Your Audience, he says,

“Backstory in narrative…is sometimes a grim necessity, but it is best to approach it like a lake of thin ice. Quick, delicate steps across to get to the other side. Linger too long or grow heavy in the telling and the ice will crack and you will plunge into the frigid depths. And then you get hypothermia. And then you will be eaten by an Ice Hag. True Story.”

I drew a big star in the margin next to this point and wrote: This is why I have to start over. (By the way, I love everything I read from Chuck Wendig. I can’t wait to get into his Miriam Black series.)

The good news is I have forty pages of meaty background to work into the story. And some to spare. Eventually, I might use it to write a prequel. I wrote enough backstory to inspire a damn prequel because I can’t read American History without going to the veeeeeerrry beginning to slog out every gory detail. Staring at me from the opposite page of the first quote, another gem from Wendig:

“Beginnings Are for Assholes…The audience begins where you tell them. They don’t need to begin at the beginning. If I tell the story of a Brooklynite, I don’t need to speak of his birth, or the origins of Brooklyn, or how the Big Bang barfed up asteroids and dinosaurs and a flock of incestuous gods. You start where it matters.”

Ok. I’m really glad I started over because I did exactly that. Noted, Chuck.

There is a creative, non-linear genius buried deep inside of me somewhere I think. She has tested the air from time to time– in my slight obsession with music, my love of visual art, photography, or a really good movie. She lives in awe and curiosity of the natural world, and sometimes makes an appearance through my adventurous hair color. She is drawn to textures and patterns. And dramatic, saturated hues, and high contrasts.

Art is powerful. It gives me that spiritual high that I always tried to have at church, only it’s not forced. It either speaks to me or it doesn’t. When it hits, it can hit hard. Right to the soul.

In my last post I wrote, “I read mostly non-fiction. Writing fiction has forced me into a made-up world. Inventing characters and places that don’t exist has me feeling a little crazy. But I like it.” Writing fiction has given life to my creative side in ways never done before, and I’m up for the challenge.

So why a dystopian fiction?

First of all, who doesn’t like a good dystopian fiction to make you even more worried and distrustful of society? It’s a hot genre. I unapologetically embrace my cynical side and admit that I quite enjoy them. There are so many great dystopian novels to read and so little time. Ya’ll better pin the hell out of that link, even though I’m sure it isn’t complete. It’s a good place to start, at least.

Dystopic stories exaggerate what’s wrong with the world to make a point. They are supposed to be thought provoking, a step beyond entertainment. If you aren’t screaming “OH MY GOSH THIS IS TOTALLY HAPPENING RIGHT NOW!” in a sweaty panic, looking around shifty-eyed at friends and neighbors, double checking your food storage and 72-hour emergency kit, the story doesn’t go far enough.

To quote a man I once revered,

“Some things that are true are not very useful” — Boyd K. Packer, The Mantle is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect, 1981, BYU Studies, Vol. 21, No. 3, pp. 263.

Art is an abstraction of truth.  It’s allowed to jump out at you when reality doesn’t. It’s like eating frozen orange juice concentrate strait out of the can. It’s potent.

So I have a lot of scaffolding laid out. I’ve been doing a lot of groundwork. Characters, places, story lines, etc. The vision is there. It’s been in there for some time. (Taps my finger to my head emphatically.) The challenging part is slogging it out, one word at a time and still getting something worth reading. At the end of the day, I want it to be worth people’s time. Publishable. It seems far out, but that’s what I’m dreaming for. The more I write the more I realize just how long it’s going to take to get to that point. But, I’m okay with that.

Those of you who have been following me so far, thank you! Thank you for your time and your feedback. You give me the encouragement and momentum to keep writing. I have a Facebook Page. I’m on Twitter, Google+, and Instagram. You might also see me on Reddit now and again, asking for ideas and feedback. Keep the love coming.


….Oh my gosh, you are still here?! Well you deserve a reward for reading that super long post, and then scrolling beyond the abyss. Here is an excerpt from the manuscript for you to enjoy. Or laugh at. Either way, here you go:

Robert the cat decides to grace us with his presence. He’s walking an imaginary tightrope across the house to my chair. I give my lap a pat and up he jumps. Needing my thighs a bit, he finally settles down. Squinty-eyed and belly full, he purrs to the beat of his tail curling up and down. Up and down.

Dahlia is podding peas at the table, her delicate freckled hands methodically removed every little pea for canning. Lowry is tying and hanging herbs and flowers for drying. Maizey should be back from hunting rabbits any time now.

It’s nearly a normal evening, like the ones we always had. But it doesn’t last.

“Pah…!” Olive yells out, shattering the stillness. Everyone drops what they are doing. The cat flies off my lap, and I leap with my heart out of the chair.

“No! Paragon!” She’s thrashing violently, her body fueled by an inner rage and panic never lost over time.

I know this nightmare. I know because I lived it too. I try to walk to her, but my feet turn to lead, heart pounds in my chest. A sequence of images take me away. I gag remembering the hot, crowded square. A glowing white concrete wall meets the high sun, blinding the crowd. It still hurts my eyes. I have to shut them to block out the light.

Olive cries again, “No!”

In the blackness of my eyelids I see my father on the wall. The ruby-red sap flowing from the necks of the executed. Dad jumps, disappearing. Gunshots. Chaos. It’s the Blood Atonement Ceremony. The one that displayed her sister’s end. I shake my head to dissolve it all away. Olive needs me. I have to wake her up.

What happens next? That’s half the fun for me. You’ll have to wait to find out!



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