Tuesday, April 4, 2017

GUEST POST: "Researching to build worlds and add realism to fantasy" by C.A. Hartley

The inspiration for my middle-grade fantasy series, "The Plight of the Plexus," came ten years ago when I took a break from my corporate career to spend time with my two-year-old son. During his naps, I often spent time reading about ancient history, art, and physics (all hobbies from my college days).

I had just finished reading a physics article on String Theory and turned to Renaissance painters. While studying Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Nederlandse Spreekwoorden (Netherlandish Proverbs), my normal train of thought— what were all these crazy people doing?— shifted into a different one: What if I climbed inside the painting and interviewed them? And, once I struck up a conversation, what if I became part of their upside-down world? How would I escape? 

With String Theory and parallel dimensions still floating in my mind, I envisioned many painted worlds not controlled by artists, but beings living in the higher dimensions. That day, String Theory became the construct for the Plexus (my liminal world that binds and separates all parallel dimensions) and Bruegel’s painting a mechanism to move in time. I immediately wrote two chapters of my first novel in the series: “The Plight of the Plexus” set in the higher dimensions; and “Escaping the Up-side-down World” set in Netherlandish Proverbs.

Before re-entering the workforce, I read everything I could find about Bruegel and String Theory, outlined the series, and completed a rough draft of the first book (then titled: Grandmother Isadora’s Gemstone Tablets). Over the next several years, the story grew in my mind and, as William Faulkner said, “If a story is in you, it has to come out.” I took another break from work, this time to write The Primal Key, the first book in the series.

I allowed myself a year to write the manuscript, and research quickly took on a new role. I dusted off my first draft, written years earlier. Much of the story was purely from my imagination and it lacked depth and realism. Less than five percent of that original draft survived in the final manuscript. 

Research brought my story back to life. I had set a number of scenes in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Camera in hand, I took a field trip to my favorite art museum to get the details “right.” Unlike many museum-goers who mostly admired the great works in The Met’s collection, I spent hours figuring out how my protagonists (thirteen-year-old Anne and Alex Clarke) would escape the museum when all the normal exits were sealed. I also selected the works of art to feature in the book.

The Met scenes underway, I turned my attention to Grandmother Isadora’s estate. Picking the right setting took several weeks of research and a number of fieldtrips. I wanted a secluded environment that was also near a major metropolitan area. My short list included: The Greenbrier State Forest (WV); Catskills Park in New York's Forest Preserve; Wharton State Forest (NJ); and Jenny Jump State Forest in New Jersey.

My son accompanied me on my research trip to Jenny Jump State Forest and we both agreed that, although beautiful, the creepy factor was high, especially late on an autumn afternoon— a perfect atmosphere for Grandmother Isadora. The nearby sod farm between Ghost Lake and Bear Swamp seemed just the right size for the estate. A cave on the northern edge of Ghost Lake became the setting for Alex’s vision quest. Even some of the local folklore about Shades of Death Road, which skirts the southern edge of the forest, made it into the book. Although Jenny Jump (herself) is not featured in Book 1, look for her later in the series.

Grandmother Isadora’s five ancient gemstone tablets also needed an infusion of reality. I’ve been interested in ancient civilizations since my family traveled to Egypt when I was eight, so ancient Egypt was definitely on the list. For the other four tablets, I selected the Indus Valley Civilization (South Asia), the Greek Bronze Age (Greece), the Zhou Dynasty (China), and the Mesoamerican Epi-Olmec culture (Central America).

I had studied these histories before, but winding facts about these cultures into a work of fiction required me to dig deeper. Trips to the library to read history texts, discussions with experts, and some internet research turned up volumes of material. To structure and organize the vast amount of data I collected, I wrote mini-research papers laced with scanned pictures.

Satisfied I had researched enough, I put aside the mound of data—because when middle-grade readers pick up a fantasy novel, they expect to be transported into an exciting new world filled with wonder and adventure, not a textbook wrapped inside a fictional plot. I only added details from my research if they helped develop character or enhanced my fantasy world.

Embroiled in writing book two, The Amalgamator’s Trials, I look forward to that inevitable time when the story grinds to a halt and research saves me. For me, learning and discovery staves off writer’s block. 

Cathy (C.A. Hartley) is the author of the middle-grade series “Plight of the Plexus,” the first of which, The Primal Key, was released in August 2016. She loves art museums of all types (The Metropolitan Museum of Art is her favorite). She practices Kung Fu and Qigong, but keeping up with her middle-school son is what really keeps her young in body and in spirit. Cathy lives in New Jersey with her husband, son, and Styx, her labradoodle. 

Visit her at www.cahartley.com.

Alex Clarke trains for one thing— finding the broken bits of Grandmother's Carnelian Tablet. The relic, if mended, could reveal the location of the Primal Key— the key to unlocking parallel dimensions. His family duty and his path are preordained, foretold centuries ago until . . .

Anne Clarke's curiosity gets the best of her. She opens a storage box, the one thing Mom insists she leave alone, and prematurely unleashes suppressed talents— dangerous skills that can't be curbed once released. Worse, she accidentally leads Seth Barthony, Grandmother's murderous adversary, to the family's safe house. Seth's agents destroy their home and abduct Mom. As ransom, Seth insists Grandmother hand over the Primal Key.  

As Alex scrambles to uncover clues to the Key's last resting place, Anne learns her new talents could help rescue Mom. But Anne's shaky and untested skills could, if forced, kill her and those she loves.

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