The Magic Is Everywhere

Last weekend, our family headed for the marina, a grassy area on the west point of Berkeley that looks over the San Francisco Bay Area. We have been there many times to fly kites, play soccer, run and bike. 

This time, armed with a blanket and picnic, we were planning on some serious reading. Older son had a book assigned from school, a historical fictional account of many good people dying from a plague back in the 1700’s: perfect depressing material for the summer vacation. Not surprisingly, he hadn’t embraced the intrusion with the enthusiasm he showed for Christopher Paolini’s Eragon or J. K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter. 

It was surprisingly windy and we made for some bushes and trees that would deny us the view, but offer shelter. We spread the blanket and I fell into my stadium chair and flicked on my Kindle.

While I waited for it to fire up, I glanced to my left. Between the bushes and the trees was a tunnel, with brush growing up and over so that you could barely see the sky. It was dark inside with the promise of sunlight on the other side. My youngest son, I realized, was staring at it as well. He turned to me.

“What do you think is through there?” he asked, eyes wide open.

“I don’t know,” I replied, the right level of gravity in my voice. “Think you should check it out?”

He nodded, rose and moved into the tunnel. He never came out…

Okay, that is not exactly true. But he stayed in the tunnel and explored beyond. Sometimes he sat and read his book, and other times played, creating his own world. Finally, he called for me to join him.

“The tunnel is safe,” he declared, “but there are dragons on the other side. Be careful.”

I knew that on the other side was a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, San Francisco, and the bay with many sailboats. But as his tiny hand took mine and guided me out the other side, all I saw were the dragons.

Others might have seen a red kite with a long tail, to its left was a blue-green one tearing through the sky in acrobatic maneuvers, but we saw two dragons eying each other. My son announced with authority that they were deciding whether to fight or be friends. Remembering my politically correct role as father, I said I hoped they would be friends. 

But as I watched them and glanced back at the tunnel, it was my imagination that soared. Perhaps a new book is fermenting, or only a scene in the next Wycaan Master. Maybe it will surface next year or in a decade, but it is stored away.

And this moment of magic only happened because I was ready to embrace it, albeit with a little help from a nine-year-old with a rich imagination. But then I have seen elves in coffee shops.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written three epic fantasy novels and the first reached the Quarter Finals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award as of March 2012. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

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It’s In The Journey

“The problem with your genre,” the man declared with a smirk, “is that the reader always know what’s going to happen in the end. That’s why I never read fantasy.”

I could have asked him how he knew this since he admitted to not reading the genre. I might have questioned whether romance (the most popular fiction genre) or cookbooks (most popular non fiction) are any different. Those recipes never work for me!

Instead, I asked him what it was about epic fantasy that made it popular assuming he was right about the predictable endings. To his credit, he thought a while before answering. “It’s in the journey,” he replied.

I’ve been thinking about this. During my summer vacation, we camped by a river. The locals told me that there were no fish inhabiting it and it was only good for swimming in.

We went down to the river and my sons had a great time with their river rats (inflated tubes) negotiating small rapids.

I got out my fly rod, walked a bit upstream and stood in the middle of the water casting. The river was beautiful and clear, the rocks underneath and protruding were smooth and colorful. Majestic redwoods surrounded us and a noble mountain peak loomed above me. Wisps of fog hugged the tops of the trees and later in the day came almost to the edge of the water.

The author, deftly not catching fish!

I imagined where a wild trout (huge one of course) would hover and allow its prey to float right to it (a feeding pool, I think the experts call it). I cast my fly and watched it float in a wide arc. Being of only limited skill it took me a while to cast to the right distance, but I was very satisfied when I could consistently float my fly into the (imaginary) feeding pool.

A couple walked past arm-in-arm and the man felt compelled to tell me that there were no fish in the river. I nodded and told him I knew. He shrugged, but his partner got it, I think.

“Enjoy yourself,” she said.

I did enjoy myself that afternoon. I enjoyed setting up my fly rod and casting it out. I enjoyed the river, the trees, the mountain, the fog. I felt myself sighing as I released the tension of my real world and let it float away with the river.

Hemingway fly-fished. Tolkien smoked a pipe (I couldn’t find evidence that he fished but he wrote poems about it – see below). I strive to walk in the shadow of Tolkien rather than Hemmingway, but the pipe has long been relinquished. Still I remember the pleasure I got in packing and lighting the pipe, even cleaning it. I still yearn for the smell of the Borkum Riff tobacco all these years later. I miss it more than the smoking for sure. I recall the anticipation of waiting all day for that special time after dinner when I could sit outside my little house and puff away the worries of the day.

Gimli lights up after a hard day of killing.

At the end of one of my fantasy novels is a twist I am very proud of. Those who have read it all tell me that they gasped at that moment. In my writer’s group, while still only on page six of that novel, one of the women guessed the twist.

I never responded, never told her she was right. I want her to enjoy the journey.

Happy fishing everyone, however you cast your rod. I’ll leave you in the hands of the Master:

Fish Riddle

Alive without breath;
as cold as death;
never thirsting, ever drinking;
clad in mail, never clinking.
Drowns on dry land,
thinks an island
is a mountain;
thinks a fountain
is a puff of air.

So sleek, so fair!
What a joy to meet!

We only wish
to catch a fish,

 So juicy-sweet!

                                                      From Lord of the Rings By J.R.R. Tolkien

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written three epic fantasy novels and the first reached the Quarter Finals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award as of March 2012. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

Teaching LOTR in School

English Teacher and novelist, Roger Colby, proses teaching Tolkien in school. Here he explains in his excellent post. Your thoughts?

Thanks for the feedback to my previous Tolkien posts. Have a great weekend.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written three epic fantasy novels and the first reached the Quarter Finals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award as of March 2012. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

Writing Is Hard Work

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is probably one of the most important texts written in the 20th century.  It is also a text that most students can read without much difficulty if given proper time.  Most teachers do not realize that the epic saga can be used to teach most of the Common Core Standards.  I have devised a unit for English teachers to use which is based on a unit I taught a few years ago when I was experimenting with using Advanced Placement style instruction in an at-level classroom.  It will work well for Common Core and will work for a freshman or sophomore class as juniors focus on American literature while seniors focus on British literature.

1.  Unit Thematic Questions – I ask several questions (meant for free-writing sessions) before we begin reading the text: What does power mean to you?  State several types…

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I’ve Never Been In A Dwarf’s Cavern

I must confess: I’ve written almost 300,000 words of epic fantasy (three books) and never seen a dwarf’s cavern, an elf’s tree city, or a troll’s rock cairn. Now this might lose me credibility with readers, but after being complimented for my world-building by an editor at an established publishing house, I was asked from where I derive my inspiration for world-building from a fellow writer who is struggling with this important aspect.

My non-fantasy novels, The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale, were both situated in my native England, and my upcoming novel, Unwanted Heroes, is based here in San Francisco. I’m not sure if I chose these surroundings as much as absorbed what is around me into my stories. It is, I guess, what allows me to see elves in coffee shops.

I think the process is the same for me when I build my fantasy worlds. I am blessed to live surrounded by the natural beauty of California and its surrounding states, it is important to not only admire the majesty of the area but see it through the eyes of your protagonists. Three examples come to mind.

I have shared how my journey into the world of fantasy was prompted by my eldest son (then 11-years-old) complaining that I shouldn’t be writing while on vacation. I challenged him to write something with me and make it a family activity (the desperate games we play…) and there under the watchful eyes of the redwoods, we began our journey. 

It was easy to see our young heroes seeing these noble trees and the vines that hang in the forest where we were camping. They were ambushed as they passed a rock enclave, almost hidden by moss, that was a five minute bike ride from our tents.

On Monday, I will travel to an annual professional conference in St. Louis, where we have met for the past two years as well. To give us a break from the intensity of the conference, the organizers arranged a trip to a children’s museum. The incredibly creative designers had thought to fill their vast basement with caves and caverns.

While my colleagues snuck off to a nearby bar, I walked through these caverns imagining what it was like to live as a dwarf underground. I’m not sure what my biggest mistake was: missing out on a social mixer or admitting to my colleagues why I had declined their offer.

Finally, this year we traveled to Crater Lake in Oregon. Jutting out from the deep blue waters is an island called Magicians Island.  The audio visual told us that the name came because it reminded the explorer of a wizard’s hat. I sat on the ridge overlooking the island, saw the steep grey rocks, the windswept trees, and the ospreys flying overhead.

Book 4 has a base from which to begin…

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written three epic fantasy novels and the first reached the Quarter Finals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award as of March 2012. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@elfwriter).