Books aren’t always crafted in a linear fashion. In fact, my own personal experience shows that this is rarely the case for me. This year I am planning to launch the first part of my fantasy trilogy, the Sitka Saga, a story that has evolved and changed through the ten years I’ve spent writing it. So I thought I’d share a bit about how this story came to be, and why I’m pouring so much of my time and energy into sharing it with the world.
I live in northern Minnesota, a land of pristine lakes, thick boreal forest, and the northern lights. It’s a magical place, and the place that has heavily inspired my work, including the Sitka Saga. While you can find almost as many different writing processes as you can find writers, for me stories usually start with a single image.
Before I moved here, back when I was around 15 or 16, I visited the North Shore of Lake Superior in the winter. To say that I was captivated by the North Shore in the wintertime was an understatement. Its rugged and icy coastline, frozen waterfalls, and snow-laden fir trees completely took my breath away. As we were hiking in a river gorge, I got this image of a small group of people who were making camp in a river valley. They were exiled, outcasts. Shortly after that, one of my main characters, Tanya, just appeared in my mind, her character almost exactly as it is today.
While I didn’t know much else about the characters in this image, I knew this was going to be a fantasy novel. I collected some notes in a notebook (often during math class) but I didn’t really have a plot and wasn’t sure where the characters were going to go. Then graduation came, followed by starting an intensive major in college, and my notebook of ideas got buried among the many others in my desk. My novel was officially put on the backburner.
As it turned out, moving away and starting college would contribute more to the book than I could have imagined–though not a way I could have possibly foreseen at the time.
Apart from my intensive major, something even more intensive happened to me when I started school. I had met a wonderful friend through my major, this friend invited me to an evangelical Christian church that she was attending. I went with her to check it out, not expecting a whole lot. As such, I was completely unprepared for how welcoming everyone would be. The people at the church were so kind, so eager to get to know me, and so enviably close with each other. Not only that, but they had a campus-based group for college students where I could make instant friends.
It was everything a homesick freshman could have asked for.
As I got involved, I learned that the church community was intense, and in some ways all-consuming. There was no wanting for friendship; in fact, it seemed like there was something going on every night of the week. I started to become so busy with my friends in the group that there wasn’t really time for hanging out with anyone else. I didn’t have time to write anymore, and I was led to believe that any spare time I did have was best spent with other people, whether strengthening the friendships we had in the community or reaching out to bring new people in.
In riding this wave of new friendship I began to lose touch with some of the interests and hobbies I loved the most. That should have been a warning sign, but at the time it seemed like a small price to pay for guaranteed belonging when I was alone and far from home for the first time.
This gauzy haze of intense friendship began to mask some of the teachings of the church that made me uneasy: teachings about relationships, about women, about LGBTQ people, about people outside the church. I never fit the mold of the type of woman the church wanted me to be, but the derision shown for outside opinions was strong enough to keep me from speaking out, lest I lose all of the friendships I had cultivated over the last several years. I was told that such differences of personality and opinion were wrong and sinful and were proof that I needed to have more faith. So I buried my doubts, adopted a more acceptable persona, and stayed quiet about my opinions. My friendships and belonging were just too much to lose.
All of this kept working really well for me. Until suddenly it didn’t.
As time went on, the uneasiness continued to creep in like a cold mist to the point that I couldn’t ignore it anymore. And when I stopped ignoring it, several things became apparent.
It became apparent that leadership in the church was controlling and unwilling to listen and unwilling to change.
It became apparent that outside perspectives were purposefully stifled and excluded.
It became apparent that the only way to be accepted was to bury certain parts of yourself so deep inside you that you didn’t feel like an individual anymore.
It became apparent that as soon as you started to bring those parts of you back to the surface, those smiling faces who brought you into the group as their pet project suddenly lost all interest in being your friend.
It became apparent that in the fear of losing my sense of belonging, I had lost something even more precious: myself.
I could write an entire book about all of the sad and strange things that happened in that group, but that’s not the point of this post. The point is that I really began to step away from that bizarre phase of my life when I left to study in Scotland the summer before my senior year.
The whole previous semester had been filled with growing doubts, but it wasn’t until I boarded my plane that the life I had been building began to fall apart. From thousands of feet up in the air, I spotted my house, my campus, and all of these places that had felt like my whole world. But now I saw them from a new perspective. These places weren’t my whole world; they were just a tiny speck in a much larger universe. And so I watched the rooflines grow smaller and smaller in the distance until the moment that they vanished completely.
As I set foot on new soil, I felt parts of myself that I had long ignored come alive again. I traveled, made new friends, and took creative writing classes. For the first time in years, I started working on my fantasy novel again, and created the character of Sitka, an adventurous young woman with gifts she felt like she had to hide from society.
Incidentally, I also took a class called The Psychology of Evil, which was a study on how seemingly good and normal people can go on to commit horrible acts of violence. Although the church I’d belonged to was not violent, I recognized several tactics they used on its members, including lovebombing, creating a distinct in group/out group, instilling in its members a grandiose sense of purpose, and severing connections with those outside the group. This gave me pause as I continued writing–what if the world wasn’t split into good and evil like I’d been led to believe?
What if our human need for love and belonging was a double-edged sword, one that could lead individuals either to a life of greater empathy, selflessness, and courage, or to a life of hostility, violence, and fear, depending on the circumstances?
A year after studying abroad I got married and continued to travel the world. While living temporarily in Oxford, I had more time to focus on actually developing this fantasy story that had for so long been in the back of my mind. As I wrote, I kept coming back to my experiences in that church, and what I had learned in Psychology of Evil.
And suddenly I knew what I wanted to write about.
Bringing it all together
The Sitka Saga was always going to be a fantasy set in a North Shore-inspired world. But fantasy is just the ambience; it’s not what a book is about. It took many years–and both losing and finding myself–to form the actual story behind the Sitka Saga after the initial inspiration. The journey to get there wasn’t pretty, but it was necessary. There are many, many things that I regret from my years in that church, but the book also wouldn’t be what it is without it. I guess it’s possible to create something beautiful out of a terrible situation.
There are few feelings worse than feeling like you can’t be authentically yourself. I don’t want anyone to have to live through years in fear of being who they are, but sadly that’s a reality in a world where those in power see people who are different as a threat. And while sometimes I want to imagine and escape to a world where such awful things don’t happen, I know that the best stories examine both the most beautiful and the most painful parts of being alive.
And so I’m writing about a world that is good but not fair.
A world where some of the best things about people are the very things that people in power declare to be wrong or sinful.
A world where people have exquisite and unique magic within that they have to hide in order to be accepted in the world.
A world where people have immense capacity for love and friendship right alongside immense capacity for fear and hate.
A world where bringing out the magic within you is often the hard choice, but the right choice. And a world where making that choice is not just good for you, but good for the world.
Because the world doesn’t need more fear. It needs our magic.