Safe Harbor

Character development is a key factor of any writing project, and that includes challenging the characters with struggle.

John Shedd is known to have said, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” Character development in a novel relates to that sentiment because a character can be safe in their world, but that’s not what the novel is built for.

Novels are built for longer stories that immerse a writer into a new world where the protagonists must endure some sort of struggle.

In my most recent novel, ‘The Magic of Cape Disappointment,‘ the protagonist’s return to the safe harbor of her childhood is when her real adventure begins. This photo is a picture of the Ilwaco, Washington harbor where the protagonist grew up and returns after completing medical school in order to take care of her grandmother.

One of the concepts I thought was interesting to explore in the novel was the idea of the safe harbor both literally, in the case of Ilwaco, and figuratively with the protagonist’s soul mate. When the protagonist first returns to Ilwaco after many years in New York City, she first views this safe harbor as anything but, and her goal is focused on returning to New York as quickly as possible.

As the novel progresses and her safe harbor hometown is threatened by an unexpected force, she starts to realize the value of home and belonging. Of course, those lessons are learned not from quiet observation of her daily life, but by enduring several tests of strength.

I hope that wherever you are, that you’ve found a safe harbor, but that you also don’t let it stifle your development.

As for my character, by the end of the novel (and a theme in the following) she echoes the famous Louisa May Alcott quote, “I am not afraid of storms for I am learning how to sail my ship.”

Novels are built to challenge the characters. As readers, we want to succeed vicariously with the characters as they move through their challenges to live happily ever after in their own safe harbors.

Travel as Inspiration

Several years ago, I stood at this very spot after a short hike up to the Cape Disappointment lighthouse. Standing here and looking out the beautiful view inspired me, and I’m sure many visitors to the area can share that sentiment.

Cape Disappointment (yes, that is the real name) was named in the late 1700s by a British sea captain, and when Lewis and Clark arrived there a few decades later, Cape Disappointment was where they looked out onto the Pacific Ocean after a very long and arduous journey.

Although Cape Disappointment is only a few hours drive from either Seattle or Portland, it still feels like a world away. Small fishing villages dot the map and the roads all follow or lead to the Pacific Ocean beaches. Lewis and Clark historic sites abound from the Dismal Nitch to Fort Clatsop and the Lewis and Clark interpretive center in Cape Disappointment State Park.

The state park has not one, but two, lighthouses to visit including camping spots along the beach where you can fall asleep listening the ocean waves roll along. On my first camping trip to “Cape D,” the idea for my latest novel took hold. Since then, I’ve visited the area several times – each time returning to my favorite coffee shops, museums, and restaurants.

I hope that you get the chance to visit this lovely area and to imagine being able to see the setting for ‘The Magic of Cape Disappointment.’ In the novel, this location of the lookout by the Cape Disappointment lighthouse plays a key role in the novel’s events. Hopefully even from this picture alone you can get a little sense of the location’s magic. 🙂



The Novel Path

Starting a novel can seem overwhelming, especially since there are so many how-to guides and unlimited advice books. Everyone has something that works for them so you hear things about writing every day, plotting tips, structure requirements, genre rules, breaking rules, etc. where it starts to feel like there are an impossible number of different rules that one should be following.

Everyone seems to have a recipe for how to write a novel and all one seemingly needs to do is to follow that path. Of course, the illusion is that there is a clearly marked path in the first place!

W. Somerset Maugham is known to have said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

From my view, that’s probably the most honest bit of advice out there. 🙂 Writing is a creative process and writing a ~250-page story that creates another world is no small feat. At least today we have word processing systems that make life so much easier (regardless of how many authors complain about auto-correct), early authors like Jane Austen wrote everything out by hand with a quill pen.

Over hundreds of years of novels, what we can generally surmise is that there are no steadfast singe group of rules for writing a novel. Rules are created and then broken by a pioneering author. There is no single path with clearly marked borders for you to follow. Even grammar changes over time and sometimes rules are optional (Oxford comma), depending on the writer’s preference.

Novels are creative – so don’t let yourself be limited. Create new worlds. Venture off the beaten path and try something new. Whatever you do, I hope that you keep writing and don’t let yourself get discouraged. And don’t forget – no one really knows what the rules are, so figure out what works for you!

The Writers Group

Joining a writer’s group can feel a little intimidating at first, stepping into a room of strangers and providing them with some pages from a work in progress. Despite the nerves, I think that it is a worthwhile experience.

When my writer’s group meets up, we sit around a big table and discuss a genre or things like how to best use dialogue, then we share and critique any work submitted by anyone in the group for the session, and we end each session with a writing exercise.

Each of us write in different genres with different styles and I really enjoy that element because it challenges me to think about other writing styles like using different points of view or seeing how other writers handle character development.

A writer’s group also provides writers with a safe place to test out new material with several constructive readers who provide valuable feedback. Constructive feedback is very possibly the most valuable gift a writer can receive when working on project. Sure, your family and friends can review something, but they will most likely hold back on more critical comments.

The group also provides inspiration, to see how others are working hard to improve their skills and refine their story ideas. It’s inspiring to see fellow writers struggling with similar challenges yet determined to succeed and share their unique voice with the world via an entertaining story, novel, or screenplay.

Most importantly, a writer’s group provides a sense of community, where you can celebrate success and where you also know that you can share a work in progress that might be a little rough around the edges.

Wherever you are in your artistic endeavors, I hope that you find a community of gentle and honest readers to establish your own supportive writing community. Writing itself is pretty much a solitary venture, so it’s worth the time to find a group and help others while also challenging yourself to advance your skills. Keep going, fellow writers and artists! 🙂

A special thanks to those in my own writing group – after each meeting I always enjoy a burst of inspiration and renewed dedication to my own writing projects.

Making Magic (seem) Real

One of the biggest challenges of magical realism as a genre is making magic seem real in the real world backdrop. The fantasy genre allows us to build a magical world with different rules, but magical realism adds magic to the real world and the overall effect should feel realistic.

In my latest novel, the protagonist has magical abilities that allow her to influence the natural elements among other things. It was really fun adding in magical elements to a contemporary fiction novel, but also very challenging because the magic that defies reality had to seem plausible.

Before I started writing in the magical elements, I created rules for the magic in terms of how it would appears and what the limitations were. For example, the protagonist is able to influence the weather, so the weather almost became another character in the novel. At first, the weather impacts were simply part of the description of the scene until the reader realizes that those descriptions were a deeper part of something directly associated with the character.

Because I selected the first-person point of view for the novel, the first plan I had for dealing with magic in the contemporary real world was to unveil it to the protagonist slowly, where the magic first appears and feels like a coincidence.

Rolling out the magic slowly in that fashion was one of the methods I used in the novel to make it feel more real world. Another method was to add in fictional myths that seemed to explain the origin of the magical elements and almost explain them that way. Introducing both the myths and the “coincidences” helped me create a way of introducing magic to the fictional real world.

At the end of the day, creating a magical world in fiction can be easier than introducing magical elements into a realistic view of the real world. That said, while magical realism can be very challenging, I really enjoyed the challenge and I hope that the readers feel transported into an escapist read.

Seasons in Writing

Letting the reader know the season helps establish the setting and also helps track time passing as a novel progresses. In my most recent novel, seasons bookmark the progress of the book and also reflect upon the protagonist’s journey. For example, the novel opens in November and the late autumn weather reflects the events impacting the character.

We find out later in the novel that the character herself is impacting the weather around her, with a magical ability to influence the weather of which she was unaware. Her world continues to become more bleak as Winter advances.

Of course, I could have written the same events happening in any season, however, I like to think there is subtle poetry with a seasonal reflection that adds dimension to the other magical elements of the story.

By the end of the novel, the opposite occurs with the season – when in January, the very middle of winter, the protagonist’s journey is complete and we learn of the details of the hope-filled happy ending. I like to think that the seasons influence the progress of the protagonist’s journey and also provide a little sense of underlying poetry for the reader.

Whatever the season, or seasons, in your writing project, I hope that they provide you with inspiration and help add depth to the story. 🙂

Into the Sunset

My preference as a reader is to have all the loose ends nicely tied up by the end of a book, like a lovely sunset rounding out a lovely day. I appreciate the sense of completion and being able to walk away from the book and know that the story has concluded.

While it’s definitely a style thing, wrapping up the details of a book by the end of it isn’t the only option of course. Many writers and readers prefer cliff hanger endings or fuzzy endings where the complete fates of the characters remains unknown, allowing the reader to build their own ending.

In my books, I’ve thought about alternative endings and ended up on the side of the tied up sunset where we know all about the characters fates.

There are, of course, challenges to tying up all of the loose ends of a novel before the reader closes the book. It means that all the characters introduced have a purpose and a role to contribute to the ending. The tone of the ending is also important because it factors in to how a reader feels at the end of the novel – is it a happy ending?

Endings are so important, no just for the final chapter but also the final sentence. Hemingway is known to have changed the last sentence of Farewell to Arms almost 50 times.

For my most recent book, The Magic of Cape Disappointment, I also spent a lot of time on the last chapter and the last sentence. I wanted to leave the reader with a happy ending and a sense of hope, so that by the end of the novel they generally felt better about the world. As a writer, one never knows how a reader will feel reading the last chapter and the last sentence. That said, I hope that my readers appreciated the ending.