Tag Archives: borrowing

In Which RPGs Play an Inspiring Part

I may or may not have mentioned before how important RPGs have been to my writing process.  Don’t just write me off as one of those people who just writes lousy stories based off of their Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, though.  That’s not me at all.  Rather, what I’m referring to is my tendency to come up with interesting story ideas when I’ve been sitting around playing our pen-and-paper-game-du-jour.  Sometimes these ideas are related to the game that I’m involved in, but more often I find that the mindset I get into when I’m really into a game is also conducive to coming up with interesting ideas that I can then expand upon with an eye towards writing something substantial.

Part of what makes RPGs such a good jumping-off point for story inspiration is that they often feature mythological creatures which can be borrowed in one way or another for a story.  This borrowing, of course, usually leads me down a long, winding path of links on Wikipedia as I look up more information, essentially getting some of my story written for me without my having to do much except for a bit of virtual legwork.

I could go on at length about stealing for fun and profit, but the guys at Writing Excuses just did that for me, and I don’t think that I can really improve upon what they have to say on the subject.

I’ll close out by saying that, while playing RPGs gets my mind ticking towards writing, I’m not everybody.  The main point is to expose yourself to as many different influences as you can.  What RPGs have in their favor is their tendency to mash lots of aspects of different cultures, especially the folklore of different cultures, into one  place, making for a diverse slice of different creatures and concepts to get you sitting with your preferred writing implements and working on a story.


Red, Part II – Background

Usually, unless I’m writing strict realism, I need to know some things about the world which my story is going to inhabit before I can begin to write.  I don’t need to know everything about the world–I’ve tried writing pages and pages about a world before, and I’ve not gotten past page one on that project–just what aspects of the world will drive my characters.

When I conceived of the pillar of locks which has become the, er, pillar upon which this project stands, I knew that it contained some immense power which would be much sought after, but I didn’t for the longest time know what that power would be.  This was a major sticking-point for a while, until it came to me that I didn’t have to invent brand new mythology when there already existed perfectly good myths which I could borrow and twist to my own purposes.

I was raised with d’Aulaires’ Norse Gods and Giants, so Norse mythology seeped into my consciousness from an early age.  It was natural, therefore, for aspects of Norse mythology and cosmology to spring to my mind when thinking about where I might borrow from.

From there, it was just a short jump to Yggdrasil, the world tree.  At the foot of the world tree, the Norns spin the threads of all life, weaving the fates of men and gods.  What could be more sought after than control over the fate of all the world?

Warden trees were a physical manifestation of the world-tree belief.

Following my inclination towards Norse mythology also informed the current title of the project, Red, a reference to Lief Erikson’s father, Erik the Red.  That also led my mind down some paths which I have since abandoned, but at this point, the title has stuck in my mind quite firmly (a good title is hard to come by in my experience as a writer), and has in some ways become apt again, though in different ways.

With some firm background in mind, my next step is to work on characters, who are, after all, the driving force behind good stories.

Borrowing and Folk Tales

This post may seem to go against my previous posts about abandoning the same old same old, but bear with me.  One of the best places to turn when searching for story ideas is old stories.  The brothers Grimm made their mark not by writing new stories, but by collecting old ones.  Folklore of all stripes is a wonderful starting-point for a story, even if it’s only inspiration that leads you off on another track.  Likewise, borrowing plots can be a fun exercise, and can start your writing back up when you’ve stalled.

Now comes the part where I tell you not to write the same old same old.  When I say that you should borrow plots, I mean that you should borrow frameworks.  You’ll get a lot farther trying on a framework that you’ve seen used by a favorite author than you will trying to write something that nobody has written before, for, as the Barenaked Ladies say, “It’s all been done.”

Tolkien is a good example of this kind of borrowing.  The Hobbit is Beowulf with hobbits, dwarfs, elves, wizards, and orcs.  If you don’t believe me, go  read Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, then come back and see about quibbling with me.

Often, when a story pops into my head, it will borrow its framework from an H. P. Lovecraft story or a piece of mythology or folklore that I remember.  The key here is that, while I borrow that framework, I’m not just writing that remembered story over again with different names.  I’m taking something old and making it new by putting my own twist on it.

When it comes to borrowing from folk tales, I can’t think of a body of work that does so better than Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. Maybe you’re not familiar with all the folk tales that are used as the framework for various Hellboy stories, maybe you are, but whatever the case is, you can’t argue with the fresh treatment that they’re given.

Even if you’re not inclined to borrow whole frameworks from folk tales any mythology, it’s worth taking a look at for source material.  Though it may sometimes be disappointing to find that something that you thought was an original creation of your mind actually comes from a story you were read when you were a child, take heart.  Borrowed elements come with familiarity attached to them already, and you can use that familiarity to your advantage, forging a stronger connection with readers and strengthening your own work by incorporating those elements that you had forgotten.

This all comes with my usual boilerplate, don’t overdo it.  It becomes tiring to realize that an author is just using obviously borrowed frameworks, to the point that you may be able to predict the ending from the first few pages of a story.  You can’t rely on the work of others to hold up your own stories, you must support them with your own strong writing if they’re to have a chance of standing up against jaded readers and editors who’ve seen everything twice over.

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