Shape-Shifters: How Did You Think of That?

SwainsonHawk23One of the hardest questions for a fiction writer to answer is exactly where an idea came from. I was asked that question recently about some of the imagery in one of my books. The short answer is that I imagined it, but the long answer mixes research, experience, imagination and dreams.

In what is basically realistic fiction with paranormal elements, I create some characters who have unusual abilities—psychics, healers, mediums, and shamans. A few can take—or seem to take— animal forms, and my Apache characters speak about this with fear and caution as the sign of a witch. Bearing is a horror story (though gore-free), so in that genre I made the shifting real. In the Mae Martin Mysteries, characters who shape-shift are not physically becoming animals but psychically manipulating others’ perceptions to create the illusion of another creature, or so strongly identifying with an animal that a psychic could pick up the imagery. The power of our minds to share images and information is astounding, and that ability is at the root of the stories I tell.

When I was choosing search terms to help readers find Bearing, one of the ones I chose was shape-shifter, a concept that I associate with skin-walkers and similar witches. I was surprised to find that there are shape-shifter romances. The possibility that this power was romantic had never crossed my mind. To me it’s scary, so it’s an element I use in fiction to give readers goosebumps. What makes an animal image scary to one person and beautiful and powerful to another is often regional and cultural. One of my Apache friends told me some terrifying stories of owl-witches that chilled me to the bone. He scared himself by telling them and said he shouldn’t be talking about the subject. When I was in my teens, I had what turned out to be a premonition, a frightening image of someone prowling outside the house hooting like an owl. Around ten years later, my roommate and I were disturbed at night by owl calls first at the front and then at the back of our townhouse apartment. Her cat’s hair stood on end and he quivered and made pitiful sounds, his fear scaring us all the more. We’d never seen him act like that. My roommate looked outside and saw a man she worked with but didn’t know well, and she called the police. The man admitted to stalking her but couldn’t explain what had gotten into him with the owl calls. Somehow that was creepier than if he knew.

One of my good friends in high school had repeating nightmares about wolves looking through every window of her house, and the way she told it gave me the shivers. When I was a very small child, I had repeating nightmares about bears, including a strange one in which I was a fourteen-year-old boy camping on a hunting trip with an uncle, and it ended with being attacked—I think killed—by a bear. No one in my family hunted or camped, and I had never seen a bear or a gun or even a tent at the age at which I dreamed this.

A little girl I knew years ago liked to think she had hawk powers. We were swinging in swings and she told me the reason she could go so high was this special power she had. She stayed in my mind, too, as another way that people identify with animal spirits.

This can be a “treasure hunt” through the series now. (Obviously the bear story is the standalone Bearing.) Readers will find the wolf, the hawk and the owl in the Mae Martin series. No spoilers. I’ll let you look for them.

Teaching Myself to See

Years ago, at a party on the Damariscotta River waterfront in Maine, I met an artist with whom I struck up a long, thoughtful conversation. We stayed in touch for quite a while, but what I remember most about him is this. He said, “I paint to teach myself see.” I was making my living acting at the time, so I responded, “I wonder if I act to teach myself to feel.”

Writing, I have to be actor, artist, and playwright, teaching myself to observe more mindfully, to listen to others and the sounds of the world, to experience my own emotions with awareness, and to notice textures and scents. A smell can trigger a memory more powerfully than anything else. The more I pay attention, the more seeds I have in the seed bank of ideas from which stories, scenes and characters grow.

As well as being part of the creative process, this practice of awareness pops the bubble of busyness and brings me into the present moment. It’s an eye-wide-open meditation I can do at any time, cracking the shell of the ordinary to reveal its depth.

Karma and Creativity

I woke up with an attitude today. Tuesday I had to start the day with a divisional meeting and today I had to start the day with a faculty assembly. It wasn’t the event that was the problem, but my reaction to it: a negative thought.

Goswami Kriyananda’s book, The Laws of Karma, says that karma isn’t punishment or retribution, but cause and effect. The subtle aspects of the causes often get overlooked. I keep contemplating this line from the book: “If a negative thought enters your head, know the first law of freedom: Don’t feed it.” On the next page, he says, “Knowledge is greatest eradicator of negative karma.”

To me, this means that when I have a negative thought, I need to notice and transform it, not smother it. If I suppress and ignore it I could still feed it—dig a hole for it and plant it and water it with my other unsolved problems and cranky attitudes. Talking about it can go two ways: I can vent to a friend and transform the negative, or I can vent to friend and magnify the negative. Writing about it can go in various directions, too, from pointless rumination to logical, problem-solving analysis to creative transformation.

In one of his talks, Kriyananda said something along these lines: “If I’m meditating in a cave, I have no problems. But as soon as I have a student, I have a problem.” This made me laugh—it’s so true.

Humor is one way of transforming the negative. Some professors have little pottery jars in their offices labeled, “Ashes of Problem Students.” The meeting this morning suddenly became amusing when I saw it through the filter of my critique partner’s work in progress, a comic paranormal mystery in which life after death has not fire and brimstone but meetings—bureaucracy and rules and meetings. I listened to the speech about new committees for assessment being formed and could see it as a scene in that book. With that shift in perspective, I stopped feeding the negative thought and started to smile.

I know writers who transform annoying people into murder victims in their stories. That’s not a choice for me, since I write murder-less mysteries. However, I have used people who troubled me as the inspiration for oppositional characters—and a funny thing happened when I did it. I developed compassion for them. Though the characters’ roles are antagonistic in the stories, I have to understand these difficult people and feel my shared humanity with them or they’ll be cardboard villains. The process gives my protagonist some complicated and interesting enemies, while it changes my resentment into insight. One of my students told me he transforms his stress into poetry, and that it’s the best therapy he’s ever experienced. It’s working. I’ve known him for a year and seen him change to become gentler and more open-minded. He used to rant on and on about things that bothered him. Now he makes poetry with them, understands himself more, and complains less.

I suspect we’re so attentive to our negative thoughts because they are alarms going off, telling us that something needs to change. That’s also what makes them so uncomfortable, and such fertile material for art and humor.

*****

The give-away posted last week is still open for entries.

https://amberfoxxmysteries.wordpress.com/2015/09/11/win-four-books-a-gift-to-thank-you-for-reading-my-blog

 

Out of the Office!

I love putting that “out-of-office” automated response on my college e-mail account every summer after the three-week June session ends. It means I’m only a writer for July and half of August. I do all my fall class preparation in June, so I feel free: no pressure or to-do lists hanging over me. It’s not that I dislike my job—I enjoy my interactions with students—but I do have a tight schedule during the academic year, keeping up with two off-campus yoga teaching jobs as well my faculty job. I spent a few days in Santa Fe to celebrate my freedom, and now it feels great to settle back into in Truth or Consequences, 100 degree weather and all. When it got down in the eighties in the middle of my first night here, I went out for a soak in the hot spring under a full moon. When I woke up blissfully late, the first thing I did was write, working on the fifth Mae Martin book during breakfast. That’s my idea of the perfect start to a day.

As I always do in the summer I went out in the heat yesterday. The sign on the Bank of the Southwest said 102, but I’ve been told it’s right over a very hot spot in the hot aquifer and is usually wrong by a few degrees. Convinced it might it be only ninety-nine degrees, I walked to the river. The Rio Grande was full and broad, its waters gleaming with reflected blue and green. The bright notes of a red-winged blackbird perched in a shrub on the bank, the sweet scent of the sunbaked plants and the yellow flicker of a butterfly in front of a vista of pink-red dirt stopped me in my tracks—and stopped time. Nothing existed but the moment itself.

As I headed home, a friend driving past on his way from the pool stopped to talk in the way of small towns, cutting off his engine and rolling down his window. There was no traffic for us to interfere with, not in July, and I stood in the middle of the street for a one of those unexpectedly soul-baring conversations which are the cherished hallmark of our friendship. Later, while I was doing yoga in the shade on the back deck, watching a promising flock of dark clouds being herded in by the wind, a white butterfly against the thick blue-gray stilled me again. Stopping is good. To talk, to see, to be. At night, soft rain fell, touching my face with its cool fingers while I soaked in the hot spring. Water from above, water from below. Doubly blessed.

While I’m in T or C, my internet connection is limited to our wonderful local coffee shop, Passion Pie Café, which closes at three, or a feeble little mobile hotspot, which is sometimes so slow I’m reluctant to waste time dealing with it. This is making me cut back on my social media interactions, so I’m out of the office to Facebook and Goodreads, checking in rarely and saying little when I do. This results in more time for writing. I have no idea what impact my partial absence will have on my social networks on those sites, but it’s having a great effect on the next book.

My summers in T or  are always healing and productive. Immersion in the living world, from butterflies to old friends, is as important for my creativity as the freedom to write.