Writing a Series

As my followers know, I’ve been writing a series—epic historical novels set primarily in ancient Minoan Crete. The series started as one standalone, now called Beyond the Waning Moon. But I couldn’t leave my people so I just kept going. It became a generational family saga. While each story has its own protagonist and story arc, the overall series also has an arc. A quest. A purpose. The haunting fear of a final destruction. The desperate fight to hold on. The glimmer of hope.

The photos here show the reconstructed hub of Crete, the temple (or palace) of Knossos which was dug out of the earth a hundred years ago after being buried for some 3,000 years. After seeing it and learning of the strong women depicted there, I wanted to immerse myself in that world. And so it began.

The fresco of the charging bull, part of the reconstructed ruins of Knossos, replicates some of the amazing art left by the Minoans of ancient Crete, one of many images that inspired me to write about the people who once lived on this remarkable Mediterranean island, now one of the beautiful Greek Isles.

I named the overall saga the Distant Glimmer Series to reflect the distant light shining into our own times. The stories take place long ago, but they speak to our own lives today.

I’m putting finishing touches on Book Seven.

Up until now I had the impression that in marketing the work, all emphasis should go on the first book. Maybe mention that there are more to come, but don’t stress it. So I haven’t stressed the series aspect.

The columns of the temple of Knossos line corridors and staircases and, as here, one of the many stairwells. The most common columns were a bold red and extended from floor to ceiling, but some like these stood shorter above low walls and were painted black with red capitals at the top and a red band at the bottom.

This September I attended a virtual writers conference, the annual conference of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association headquartered in Seattle. During workshops I kept hearing about the power of a series.

I attended a pitch fest because I planned to pitch the opening book of my saga. Gerri Russell, award-winning, bestselling author of stacks of books, led the session, and when we broke out into smaller groups I felt fortunate to have her as coach for my group. We all gave our pitches for the agents, publishers, or producers we hoped to convince to take a look at our work. I hoped to lead the listener into the world pictured on this post and to bring the Cretan characters alive who walk through my thoughts and dreams in these fabulous places.

Gerri immediately got what I was doing with the book from the pitch I gave. But from that she began to question me to ferret out ways to better present it. Who are my characters? What are their goals, their conflicts? Could I be more personal about their dilemmas? I don’t remember all her specific questions but I quickly saw I needed to dig much deeper if I was to reveal the book’s strengths to the listener.

The throne room has been reconstructed with its frescoed griffins and small alabaster throne. It appears the throne would more likely fit a woman than a man, which led some to believe the leader of the people was a woman, a choice I made when I portrayed the leader as the high priestess. However, in my story she does accept a king, a warrior to help protect her people from threatening invaders.

The group members had a chance to try once more, and I bumbled through mine as I tried to rethink it in the moment. Gerri kept going back and forth with me, quizzing me, plucking out salient points. Those salient points gave the pitch new life. Then I hesitantly asked if I should say I have seven in the series written. She burst out with surprise. Yes! Of course! Yes!

So there it was. Emphasize the series. Each book has to stand alone, true. But its place in a series gives it much greater impact. Perhaps the market has changed. Maybe readers are wanting a series more than they did before. Something they can really get their teeth into. In any case that’s what I have. That’s what I’ll promote to those who hold the keys to entry into publication.

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New Book Birthing

The story waits, ready to be written from a skeletal document inside the computer, a hard copy of that framework in the blue notebook shown below. The outline.

In my mind I see not the words but the people and places, like the wondrous temple of Knossos on the Greek island of Crete. And the green fields of Ireland that resemble my own green knolls on this soft May afternoon in Oregon.

The grand pillars of Knossos.

Green fields of Ireland.

The characters are almost as real to me as my neighbors—because I move inside them as I show their story. I laughed with delight when I heard travel guide Rick Steves comment about the ancient Romans. They “were just people, like you and me, without electricity.”

True, they had different customs, but they felt joy and sadness and love and fury just as we do. For me it has always been exciting to imagine what life was like in ancient times—or will be in the future. I love Star Trek too. But these ancient times in these two unique islands caught my heart.

To outline or not to outline?

Authors often hold strong views on that question. Non-outline writers may insist they’d be hemmed in by an outline. Outliners like me can’t imagine drawing all those threads together without one. I would never let the outline stop me from taking new directions. But I’m not just keeping threads together for one book.

This is a series that follows two great families through the generations—the high priestesses and kings of Crete, the clan mothers and high chiefs of Éire. This new story begins about 100 years after the opening scenes of Book One in the series. I have to keep track of them all.

Besides consistency, each story requires new research. Scholars keep digging and adding more information. Sometimes I find details—either new or new to me—that affect other stories in the series. For instance when I first started writing about voyages from Crete to Ireland I assumed it would take many months to make the journey. But I found a website where you could enter names of modern ports, designate the speed of travel, and voila. They give you the overall trip time. I had to cut the time dramatically. Of course I had to determine from other sources how fast the ancient ships might go with their single square sails and ranks of oarsmen. I found estimates for similar Viking ships, other estimates for simple rowing, prevailing winds that would increase or decrease the speed.

In other instances when you’re writing a tight storyline where you want a lot to happen in a day you have to figure out what you can fit into that day and roughly what hour events can happen—even though I can’t express time in hours for people who lived by the sun, moon, and stars, not the clock. Another website tells exactly when dawn and dusk happen on any given day in any given setting. It’s not just how fast a ship can go, but a horse, a man, a woman. All these details take time to calculate. I don’t want to stop in the middle of a fast-moving scene to figure it out. So that goes into the outline. From that the rough draft can move swiftly.

Now this new one is ready for me to plunge in and live it as the words flow.

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Book Revisited

Looking Toward Mount Youktas from the Cretan Ruins of Knossos

The opening scene of one book in my series starts here in this ancient pre-Greek setting, where protagonist Helaina looks out from the temple of Knossos to the sacred mountain of Youktas on the horizon. It’s a critical morning when she will have to leap a fierce bull in a perilous ritual for her people.

It’s a story of poignant desire and guilt, swordplay and valor on land and sea, passionate trysts that must never be told, and a love that won’t let go.

I have declared it finished I don’t know how many times. Every time it has come back wanting. And every time I have dug deeper to make it work. I’ve written five more in the series–taking us from Crete to Ireland and points in between. Those five stand waiting, virtually complete. I think this one is the most difficult because it’s the oldest, but it’s essential to the saga.

In late October my agent called me and we had a brainstorming session over the phone. Out of that, I opened my mind to dramatic changes. Once you start pulling at the threads of a tapestry, huge sections may unravel, leaving the possibility of weaving in new images you never thought would emerge. I threw out whole chapters and wrote new. I brought in new characters, took new pathways.

Creative juices flowed as they hadn’t since the muse whispered most of another to me.

Now I love it more than I ever have, and I’m declaring it ready one more time. Can Helaina leap that bull and carry this story on?

Bull Leap Fresco at Knossos Ruins in Crete

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Leaping off the Page

My fiction turned real a few days ago when I was working on a bull-leaping scene for my book of ancient Crete, trying to give the work more dazzle with yet one more edit. The Cretans did leap bulls with long, sharp horns back in 1470 BC, and they painted frescoes to illustrate it, like the one shown here.

Bull Leap Fresco at Knossos Ruins in Crete

I wanted to portray the scene so a reader could live it with me. I was digging through the unabridged dictionary checking on a word for that very scene. Imagine my surprise when a similar bull with very long horns charged onto my property.

Unwelcome visitor arrives                                                                       Photo by Robin Loznak

Now, there’s a little inspiration for dazzle. I had recently contracted with developmental editor Judith Lindbergh to review the first 126 pages. And review she did. She was thorough and incisive. It was a little overwhelming. No, strike “a little.” Edit that out. It was overwhelming.

But I was plowing through, sort of like that visiting bull plowed through fences. New inspiration struck. I became excited, obsessive.

All progress stopped when I looked out my window and saw this fellow coming down my road, wagging his impressive horns.

Bull approaches Trevor

Trevor Cooley, who helps his dad, Ed, run cattle on my place, had a problem on his hands. The bull had already burst into the fields below to challenge Ed’s bulls and steers. Here, right outside my door,  the critter tossed his head at Trevor with an aggressive display. That electric wire gate looked mighty thin as Trevor phoned for help. I grabbed the camera, keeping the front door open and assuring Trevor he could run inside if need be.

The bull kept coming.

Too close for comfort

Trevor flung a little gravel at him and the critter turned away to trot down the grassy slope, tangling himself in electric fencing as he went. But he soon broke through and made his way down into the brushy gully.

By evening someone had located his owner. The man walked right up to him–almost. I was impressed. The owner couldn’t quite catch him and couldn’t drive him into the corral. After many tries he gave it up. The next morning the bull was gone. Last I heard it was on the far side of the mountain at the neighbor’s property.

But the bull did leave me with a touch of reality for the story.

My protagonist leaps a horned bull like that, one that even has a similar dapple-brown coat like the bull shown in the fresco. She has help. Grapplers hold the bull by the horns while two young men kneel in front of him, hands together. She jumps on their hands for the lift she needs to soar up and grab the ridge on the animal’s head between the deadly horns. Then she performs a front flip, her feet going over her head and down on his back–the critical crossing. One more flip and she lands on her feet on the ground behind him, into the arms of her catcher.

Of course, it being a story, the thing can’t go that smoothly. It needs tension. It needs dazzle.

Watching that bull, I was glad my protagonist did the leap, not me.

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Milestones in Rewriting

Back in February of this year I announced in a blog post that I had done a major rewrite on Book One of my trilogy set in early Greece. Having put so much effort into recasting the story, I felt certain I had it ready this time. After all, I had been improving it for 20 years.

Revised Trilogy

I proceeded to update Book Two and Book Three to reflect those changes and wrote a blog post in early April on the whole trilogy, putting a bow on it.

I thought it was done.

With that accomplished I headed out in late April on my trip to Europe to research settings for the full series, having drafted six books so far.

The emphasis on my trip was the second trilogy, since I thought the first was essentially complete. Of course I was open to any tweaking my new explorations might dictate.

My impulses first drew me back to the center of it all, the fabulous ruins of Knossos on the Greek island of Crete. I hoped I wouldn’t see anything that would require significant changes, but I opened my senses to the wonders around me.

Charging Bull Fresco, Knossos

Room in the Palace/Temple of Knossos

On my return home I was happy to report that in the first trilogy my descriptions held up. Except for a couple of additions I wanted to make in Books Two and Three, that trilogy was virtually ready to go.

Then reality hit. I received a harsh critique on Book One. Because of that critique and because this first book is the foundation of the entire series, my agent asked me to focus only on this one now and to give it another thorough revision with feedback from new readers. Another comprehensive rewrite!

I backed up and approached it one more time. I plunged into new research, including discussion with experts on the setting and technology. I gave it substantial new polishing, new scenes, clipping and reshaping of old scenes. I received new critiques by beta readers who never saw it before, did more adding and clipping to address their concerns, and more thorough polishing to see that everything works together.

Last February I thought I couldn’t make it better. Now I know I could because I have.

Remains of Stepped Portico, Knossos

Besides all that clipping and adding and reshaping, whispers of memory infused the pages from my recent visit to the site. I could see it more clearly through the eyes of my characters because I had just seen it through my own eyes.

Yesterday I sent off the new rewrite of Book One with hope that this time is the charm. Fingers crossed. I can say for certain it’s another milestone in the process.

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Going There #1: Into Crete’s Ancient Heart

Welcome to the opening day of my journey, which began in Greece on April 24, 2018. Over the next few weeks I’ll share the highlights of that 37-day trip through Greece, Portugal, the UK, and Ireland, where I traveled to research scenes for my upcoming series of epic historical novels. If you read my last two posts, the overview and backstory, you’ll have a better picture of why I went. Now here’s post #1 of the trek.

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I woke up in the morning in the Greek Isle of Crete after a long, long flight from Eugene, Oregon, via Seattle and London and Athens. Waking in the morning might not seem so remarkable, except that morning in Greece is about 10 hours after morning in Oregon. The flight adds 10 hours to the 24-hour day, so I had leapt a day ahead, and jet lag can do strange things with your sleep patterns. Maybe it was a good thing that I couldn’t sleep on the plane. Some say you get adjusted better that way. In all my travels overseas I don’t remember ever experiencing such a bright-eyed morning on the first day. That turned out to be more important to me than I anticipated.

View from Kastro Hotel in Heraklion, Crete

I checked out the view of the Mediterranean from my hotel balcony and headed downstairs for breakfast. I must say, that breakfast ranked with the best on my trip–lovely Greek pastries, a custardy egg dish, muesli, nuts, fruits, on and on.

My plan for the day was to do a quick visit to the ruins of Knossos if I felt up to it. One of my reasons for starting the trip in Crete, even though it was my farthest point from home, was that it was familiar to me and relatively inexpensive, and I assumed I’d find it easy to deal with a day or two of jet lag there.

I had spent a month in Crete on my first trip to the island, about half of that time in the island’s chief city, Heraklion, and had spent a good part of my second trip centered in Heraklion too. Now, on my third visit, I stepped out onto streets I knew, and I enjoyed getting back in touch with this special place.

Feeling good, I soon headed out for the ruins of the temple (or palace) that graced the ancient city of Knossos on the outskirts of Heraklion. It took me awhile to find the bus. The old bus stop didn’t exist anymore because they had turned the main drag into a pedestrian street. I asked for directions and got many confusing answers. That was familiar too. People so want to help, but communication becomes uncertain when their English is limited and my Greek is almost nonexistent. One woman simply said, “Come. Follow me.” I did. Love it when they do that.

Soon I was on my way, rumbling through the streets of Heraklion on one of their many buses and out to the edge of town to a site that has filled my mind for years as the characters of my books stroll through the corridors and halls and surrounding slopes of that ancient city. Knossos, heart of the early Cretan world. A rush of joy lifted me as I entered the compound.

West Court, Knossos, Crete

I first came out onto the West Court where my first story in Crete opens. I needed to stand on that broad paved courtyard and look around. Could I see what I thought I could from that place? Could I see Mount Youktas on the horizon, the mountain that looks like the face of a reclining person? Were the slopes the way I remembered from my last visit 23 years ago? And from my many recent visits by Google Maps? I stood on the ancient stones and smiled. Yes. I could see the mountain. Rearrange a few trees and I would see it even better. My descriptions held up. I relaxed and let the place wrap around me as it had done so long ago.

View to Mount Youktas from Knossos

I found the spot where I had taken a picture in 1994 that has hung on my wall ever since, an outlook past one of the unique red columns of the site to Mount Youktas beyond the hill of olive groves. This time I took a new picture with the little Nikon digital camera I bought a few years ago to help me illustrate my blog posts.

Note that the column is larger in circumference at the top than at the bottom, a style found throughout Knossos. These pillars once lined corridors and divided rooms. Most of the large ones are red. Others are black with red trim.

I wandered all around the perimeter seeking the settings of many a scene. Some of those scenes grip my heart and I relived them here where they took place, shedding a few tears for my characters.

Since my last visit the throne room has been opened. Such a thrill to see this room I call the receiving room of the High Priestess of Knossos. The alabaster chair gave a clue to researchers that the person who sat on this small chair might be a woman rather than a man, because a woman might more easily fit in that gracefully molded seat.

Visitors aren’t allowed into the room itself. You walk through the anteroom (also described in my stories) and from there you look across a low glass barricade into the inner sanctum. The barricade is low enough to lean over so you get a good feel for it. The space seemed a little smaller than I had imagined from photos but every bit as powerful with the waving swaths of red giving a womb-like impression.

Receiving Room, Knossos

In my stories, and I suspect in reality, this is a sacred room. So much at Knossos shows signs of the people’s appreciation for the sacred. I put this photo on the banner of my Facebook Author Page, and someone asked if the object in front of the chair was a toilet. The Knossians did have flush toilets some 3,500 years ago, with a plumbing system so advanced it wouldn’t be equaled until the 19th century AD. But those toilets were modestly enclosed behind doors. The basin above was interpreted by scholars as a lustral basin for ceremonial bathing. When archeologists dug these objects out of the earth some things were in a jumble and they didn’t know where the basin belonged. On the far side of the room from the alabaster chair, several steps lead to a lower level.

I believe that would be a more likely place for the basin, deeper in the earth, and put it there in my stories. I don’t portray this room in the first part of the book, although there were several lustral basins around the temple, and I managed early on to come up with a steamy scene in one of those.

Steps to Lustral Basin

I depict this room as part of the temple’s reconstruction after a dramatic earthquake. The extension of the room beyond the black pillars tends to create a space both infinite and intimate.

The griffins portrayed on the wall represent three aspects of nature, the eagle’s head for the skies, the lion’s body for the land, the snake’s tail for the deep earth. They were likely considered sacred.

The Knossians seemed to wear their religion comfortably. Frescoes show them enjoying life, sensuous, wearing clothing that clearly reveals their sexuality, but without guile, suggesting a healthy acceptance of this aspect of life. You see no seductive scenes like those found in the Roman ruins of Pompeii. Nor do you see scenes of war and aggression so common in other art of the day. Clearly, Knossos was different. But it would not go unchanged.

I stopped in the afternoon to enjoy a wonderful Greek salad in a restaurant within the compound, perfect fresh-picked tomatoes and Greek olives and more, topped with a thick square of feta cheese, sprinkled with dill and other herbs, and drizzled with Greek olive oil, a delicious sliced baguette on the side.

Grand Staircase and Anteroom, Knossos

Restored, I climbed the grand staircase. The receiving room is just beyond the anteroom on the ground level to the right of the staircase shown above. Then I trudged up the north ramp past the relief fresco of the charging bull. And I peered into column-lined rooms.

Ramp from the North Gate, Knossos

The jet lag I feared didn’t hit. I stayed and saw it all. Sometimes I rested on a low wall and just let the wonder of the place seep in. I took notes. I studied the maps I had copied for the little trip booklet I put together. I imagined scenes and assured myself that I had relayed the sense of place I needed. Unsure of some areas I went back to check them again.

Charging Bull Fresco, Knossos

I began to wonder if I needed to spend another 15 euros for the full second day I had planned for Knossos.

That question of necessity turned out to be a good thing. More on that in the next post.

For this day I felt fully satisfied. Resonant with joy.

Lower Rooms, Knossos

NEXT: Crete in Delight and Distress

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