Like a Bolt Out of the Blue

NaNoWriMo 2011 Winner Badge

(Disclaimer: I cannot be held responsible if you now have the song When You Wish Upon a Star stuck in your head. Preferably the Linda Ronstadt version. Well, OK, now I can, having purposefully—dare I say “maliciously”?—brought it to your attention, and gone so far as to prompt you with a voice. You’re welcome. It’s a great song, isn’t it? But I digress.)

Last year around this time, I had already had many, many ideas for NaNoWriMo. I hit upon the idea of writing 26 short stories, which I won’t go into again, here. Suffice it to say, it was a raging success. One of those stories got me into Viable Paradise.

But this year? What with all the preparations for Viable Paradise, I haven’t really had time to stop and think about what to write for NaNoWriMo. I’ve been re-working ideas for my urban fantasy series, but it’s been like beating my head against a wall. I want to do something that will help me with that instead of something entirely new and different.

One of the major problems I’ve had with my urban fantasy is the magic. It’s set in modern-day Atlanta, but magic works. And I am specifically staying away from sexy vampires and werewolves. My main characters are agents in the Paranormal Crimes Investigation Unit of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. They are also mages. Two other characters are normal (non-magical) cops. Another is a TV reporter. And so on.

Magic for DummiesBut how does magic work? I’ve written a ton of words, but I haven’t been able to just nail down that one little point: how does magic work? What are its limits? How can it be used? How prevalent is it? Does the public in general know about it? Etc!

And I need to know these things.

And that’s when I said to myself: "Self, what you need is a magic book for dummies."

KaZOT! (This is the theoretical sound of a bolt out of the blue. Fate steps in and sees you through . . .)

I guess I know what I’m writing for NaNoWriMo, now. A "For Dummies" book-type thing, but all about magic in my universe.

I can literally use it as a reference if I get stuck. Or I can modify if it I need to. :) And having that hard deadline of November 30th by which it must be finished should help me get past this snag I’ve been stuck in for a while.

Of course, I found a way to generate a nifty cover for it. Because, really, why not? On the Internet, if you build it, they will come.


StoryForge Cards

Earlier this year, I learned about something called StoryForge. The easiest way to think of it is as what it essentially is: tarot cards for writers.

I wanted them badly because I had some problems I thought maybe they would help me work through.

Unfortunately, StoryForge Cards were, at that time, merely a dream in the mind of the creator. He had a KickStarter campaign to raise enough money to do a run of cards. Without hesitation, I pledged $25. At the end of his allotted KickStarter time, if he had enough pledges to make up the entire amount of money he was asking for, I would be billed along with all his other supporters. And a short time after that, I would receive a deck of StoryForge Cards in the mail.

Let me pause here to give you a wee bit of history and a painfully brief explanation of tarot.

Tarot cards have an ancient history dating back hundreds of years. Originally used as any other kind of card deck, for playing games. Later, people started to use it for "mystical" reasons. The structure of the Tarot deck was four suits of Minor Arcana: swords, wands, coins, and cups. Later, it became swords, staves, pentacles, and cups.

Either way, there were 14 of each suit, ranging from the one (ace) to the ten, plus four ‘face’ cards: jack/page, knight, queen, and king. So far, it basically sounds like a normal deck of cards with an extra face card (the knight).

But in addition to these 56 cards there were the Major Arcana, another 22 cards that were added to the deck specifically for their mystical symbolism. They had no suits and names like The Magician, The Empress, Death, The Hanged Man, and The Fool.

It was believed that by shuffling the deck while concentrating on a question, the cards could be flipped face-up in a certain pattern and the cards that occupied each space in the pattern determined your fate. Of course, it was all open to a lot of speculation. All the cards had two "interpretations" – one for when they were dealt upright and one for when they were dealt inverted (upside-down). Generally, people get out of it what they want to get out of it, which to me is the entire point.

I never believed in any of the mystical symbolism or the occult nature of the cards. But they’re a great way to work through what might be bothering you. You lay out the cards in the pattern and as you try to find symbolic meaning in what the Seven of Wands or The Heirophant means when it "crosses you," you can gain insight into what might be bugging you by what your mind seizes on as a likely match. "The Seven of Wands represents being under siege . . . and yesterday at work, Frank told me he thought my plan for the budget for FY 2013 was naïve! How do the cards know!"

So that brings us to the StoryForge Deck. He got his funding and then some. After a few problems with the printer, I finally received my cards a few weeks ago.

It, too, has suits. Five of them. There are 14 each in the four suits of Wealth, Will, Emotion, and Identity, and then 22 more in the suit of Destiny. So in a real sense, you could equate Wealth with Pentacles/Coins, Will with Swords, Emotion with Cups, and Identity with Wands/Staves. (I just randomly assigned the other three. Maybe you could tell.) And that leaves Destiny to fill in the role of the Major Arcana.

Each card contains two concepts, one positive and one negative. If the card is upright, the positive meaning is taken. If it’s inverted, the negative meaning is taken. A short description of each is provided on the card.

As with tarot, there are layouts, such as "Character Background," "Film Noir," "Love Story," and "Train Wreck." Each of them contains a number of cards selected for each element of the layout.

Right out of the box, I decided to give it a try by fleshing out the background of one of my minor characters in a novel I’m working on in an urban fantasy set in Atlanta, but magic works. The character’s name is Yvonne Hanson, and she’s a psychologist who is also a profiler for the FBI. She doesn’t know it, yet, but she’s destined to have a fling with my main character. But all I knew about her was what you see above. I couldn’t get a feel for who she is.

So I sorted the cards until I was satisfied they were randomized both in order and orientation.

For the Mother position, I cast Health. Okay, that’s general enough. For the Father position, I cast The Dilemma. Again, that could go pretty much anywhere. I kept going.

The Strength of Their Relationship: WealthWell, that seems like a bad idea, but maybe I’ll be able to fit it in . . .

Problems Between Them: DefeatClearly, something goes horribly awry. But what?

Circumstances of Yvonne’s Birth: MarriageHmm. It’s a cliché probably as old as time itself, but it does still happen.

So far, nothing was coalescing. But there are a lot more cards to cast.

Complications of Yvonne’s Birth: Aversion – And this is where I got the glimmer. I had imagined Dr. Hanson as a normal character—one who does not possess any magical ability. But if that’s the case, why send her out on assignments to profile criminals using magic? It makes more sense if she is also magical. So . . .

Her dad is one of those people who, for whatever reason, can’t stand people with magic. (Like some can’t stand people of other races or sexual orientations.) And the thought that his own flesh and blood could be one of them . . .

At first they didn’t notice anything. Little Yvonne (named after her paternal grandmother) was a happy, normal child, but at around age 5 or so, she started knowing things she couldn’t possibly know. They took her in for testing, and she came up positive. She’s a psion, fairly weak, but able to sense emotions and strong surface thoughts.

Well, Dad couldn’t handle it. And little Yvonne could sense that he was more than just uncomfortable around her, and she would cry whenever he was around.

So he left. And that ties in to Defeat being the problem between them: he wanted normal children, he got a freak of nature.

The Universe’s Influence on Yvonne: Confession – Well, that plays right in! She’s an empath. Nothing is a secret from such a child, at least on some level. Imagine being asked by your darling 6-year-old girl if Santa is coming on Christmas, and having her feel the lie if you try to hide the truth. So they never hid anything from her.

Early Strengths: The Captive – Now, here we have what to me is one of the strengths of using the deck. We have here a strength or a positive attribute of the character, but what came up was a negative or inverted card. So how can I turn this negative into a positive?1 By forcing me to think along a path I would not otherwise have gone down, I get something surprising.

As a child, she was only ever around people who accepted her difference and loved her unquestioningly. She was sheltered and protected from the negative influences in the world. After her Dad left, that is. She never had to experience hatred and fear while she was untrained and unable to block out other people. She had a private tutor and was home schooled until she was able to erect strong mental wards.

Early Weaknesses: The Counselor – And here’s the flip-side of the coin: a negative attribute indicated by a positive card. Again, not a direction I would have gone had I come up with all this without any prompting.

Because of her ability, she knows people’s traumas intimately. She becomes too emotionally involved in other people’s problems, wanting to fix them from an early age "so the hurt will stop."

Education: The Mentor – Well, I mentioned earlier that she was homeschooled and had a private tutor. But let’s take this a step further. Say when she eventually goes to college—to study psychology, of course—she encounters a psychology professor who is, herself, psionic. She develops a fast friendship with this professor, and becomes her mentee. (Yes, it’s a real word; look it up.) Yvonne’s abilities are fairly weak, but this professor/mentor helps her maximize what she has.

Belief Foundation: The Black Sheep – Well, that couldn’t have been more tailor-made if I’d selected it out of the deck on purpose. Since Yvonne is literally held in suspicion, even by her own father, and actively shunned by people at all levels of society, this is a large "Duh."

Life Experience: Order – Hm. Okay, Yvonne’s neat and orderly in her life because . . . all around her is the chaos of other people’s feelings and problems. The only thing she has any control over is her space, so it’s meticulously clean to the point of OCD. A useful little quirk I can play with from time to time. Nick’s a slob. :)

Recent Shaping Experience: Delusion – Because of some early successes in her career in the FBI, she develops too much confidence in her own abilities. It’s caused her to believe that she’s infallible. And we all know what happens when someone believes in their own self-delusion, don’t we?

Scarring Experience: Infamy – Ruby Ridge. Waco. These are place names that any self-respecting FBI agent would cringe upon hearing. Unfortunately, when Yvonne failed, she failed big and some people died because her profile was way off and her own team bought into her "infallible" delusion. He wasn’t caught when he could have been, and as a result, several more people died. The press, of course, picked this up and absolutely vilified her.

And finally, State of the Character at the Beginning of the Story: The Mirror – Everything above leads inexorably to this point: she’s unsure of herself, now, having discovered that she’s not a superwoman. Her world-view is upended. She’s no longer sure of her own abilities. Top this off with the fact that her mentor has just died, so she has no one to turn to that she trusts. She’s having to examine her own motivations and abilities for the first time in a long while. And along comes Nick . . .

At this point, the first few things don’t matter, but if I need them, I can fill them in. Perhaps the mother was very ill and her father was either a friend who supported her and it turned into romance . . . or he was her doctor that saved her life. Perhaps the dilemma was whether he chooses to stay with his current family? Leaving his practice to move with her? And the wealth could be one or the other of them getting lucrative work or an inheritance that helps to seal the deal. But I’m not married to any of that, and I can leave it open, or just ignore it. Perhaps Yvonne’s mother is still around and will come into the book series at some point. Then I can flesh her out.

Anyway, I just thought it would be interesting to go through a layout from start to finish and see how I made it all work and tie in together. Not all of it was in that order. Some of it happened all at once after I cast the cards and saw a pattern among them.

And now I have a much deeper understanding of who Yvonne Hanson is, what makes her tick, and how she might react to various events within the story. All thanks to 15 cards and some "forced" creativity. (It wasn’t forced; I was merely coaxed to think outside the box.)

And hey, maybe Dad had more kids and she has half-brothers and sisters out there. Or maybe Mom remarried and she has some on that side. The possibilities are open and ready to be solidified if I need them. This entire profile will get expanded upon as I go, and some stuff will probably fall by the wayside, and some other stuff will fill in the cracks.

  1. I could literally have just flipped the card upside-down and gone with "The Stranded" instead, but that was too easy. :)

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