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Wednesday, May 11, 2016

GUEST BLOG: The Art of the Mash-Up (How Colliding Ideas Create New Stories) by Jeff Wheeler

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Fantasy Book Critic is excited to welcome Jeff Wheeler to our blog today. Jeff Wheeler is the author of The Queen's Poisoner, a new fantasy series. Today he joins us to talk about the art of the mash-up, or ways that authors combine ideas to create one unique story.

About The Queen's Poisoner:

King Severn Argentine’s fearsome reputation precedes him: usurper of the throne, killer of rightful heirs,ruthless punisher of traitors. Attempting to depose him, the Duke of Kiskaddon gambles…and loses. Now the duke must atone by handing over his young son, Owen, as the king’s hostage. And should his loyalty falter again, the boy will pay with his life.

Seeking allies and eluding Severn’s spies, Owen learns to survive in the court of Kingfountain. But when new evidence of his father’s betrayal threatens to seal his fate, Owen must win the vengeful king’s favor by proving his worth—through extraordinary means. And only one person can aid his desperate cause: a mysterious woman, dwelling in secrecy, who truly wields power over life, death, and destiny.

Fantasy Book Critic wants to extend a huge thank you to Jeff Wheeler for stopping by today. 

The Art of the Mash-Up (How Colliding Ideas Create New Stories)

Eight years ago, I read an interview with Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games, where she described her interest in Greek and Roman mythology and an episode of channel surfing late one night. Drowsily watching TV, images of war coverage began to mesh with a reality show based on teenagers.  In her own words: “That’s the moment when Katniss’s story came to me.”
This wasn’t the first time I’d heard of something like this. JK Rowling had a similar experience being on a train and inventing Harry Potter. It’s happened to me many times. What I became curious about, as a writer, was how to make inspiration happen.
There are two principles I’ve learned about the art of the mash-up and I’ve used both in my writing.
The first principle comes from John Boyd, famous for being a dog-fighting instructor for pilots at Nellis Air Force Base. I read his biography years ago and learned that he not only invented the fighter pilot methodology called the OODA loop which is still used today, but his insights into aeronautical maneuvering were also impactful on his engineering studies where he figured out an optimal ratio for speed and acrobats of aircraft. This model has been used to develop more modern combat planes. Mr Boyd wondered where his creativity came from and wrote an essay called “Destruction and Creation” in 1976.
In the essay, Boyd describes how we get ideas through mashing up different ideas together in our minds. We take a piece of this and another piece of that and throw them together. We toss out information that doesn’t help. We incorporate new information. So in its rawest essence, creativity comes from the destruction of bad ideas and forming new patterns or connections.
For me, the practical application of the Boyd principle is to constantly immerse my mind in new material. I like to read a variety of things and not just genre fiction. I read history books, biographies, business books (which is how I found out about John Boyd, actually), as well as classics from the past. I always have a kindle nearby, a book on CD, and physical books, and I go through several simultaneously. I’ve always found a lot of inspiration from history and from the books that I read.
The second principle comes from Napoleon Hill, author of Think and Grow Rich, which I’ve dubbed the new math: 1+1=3. Hill called it the Mastermind principle. It goes like this. One person talking to another person about a problem or an idea doesn’t just constitute two minds working on a solution, but invokes a third genius. Have you ever experienced that before? The act of consulting and discussing something with another person can often lead to brilliant insights that just seem to come out of nowhere but in fact come from our creative faculties. These flashes of “inspiration” are crucial to an author and they can come purposefully.
In Hill’s book, he credits the idea to the old steel industry tycoon Andrew Carnegie, but I have witnessed this happening in a variety of settings, even during my career at Intel. It would impress me how a team of engineers could get together and routinely solve insurmountable problems just by putting their heads together. The combination of individual efforts, discussed in a setting that encouraged openness and candor, resulting in near-miraculous breakthroughs.
Now for the application. I think every writer needs someone they can bounce their ideas  around with. A lot of the creative process happens alone, but I need a sounding board and it’s usually my wife who plays that role. Sometimes I’ll put my characters in situations that I don’t know how to get them out of, and so I’ll bring the problem to my wife and discuss it with her. While I was writing the Covenant of Muirwood trilogy, I was conflicted by a scene near the end when what I had planned to happen wasn’t meshing well with where the chapters were going. I wrestled over the dilemma for a while and then went out to vent with my wife. During our discussion, she suggested something that changed my way of thinking about it. That stroke of inspiration came right when I needed it and helped impact the story.
For my newest book, I used both principles. For starters, I’ve enjoyed a childhood favorite called Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. I thought the story about a spider trying to save the life of a pig could be transposed onto a fantasy setting. I wanted something Game of Thrones-ish, but without the violence, sex, or swearing. So I turned to my master’s thesis from college where I explored sanctuary rights during Richard III’s reign. I re-read some of the historical documents I had researched long ago. I watched several interpretations of the Shakespeare play. During this process, I also went with my wife on a trip to Yosemite and was entranced by the majestic waterfalls. All these ideas came together to form the basis of the series.
But before I wrote a single chapter or submitted the book proposal to my publisher, I remember sitting down with my oldest daughter and running my ideas past her. She’s an avid reader and listened to my ramblings very patiently. I was going to take some risks in this series that I’d never done before like having such a young protagonist in the first book. We discussed it closely and new ideas came which would be spoilers, so I won’t share them here. 1+1=3.
The result is a mash-up of Charlotte’s Web and a clean Game of Thrones. Even the title came to me as a flash of inspiration: The Queen’s Poisoner.

More about Jeff Wheeler:
Jeff Wheeler took an early retirement from his career at Intel in 2014 to become a full-time author. He is, most importantly, a husband and father, and a devout member of his church. He is occasionally spotted roaming among the oak trees and granite boulders in the hills of California or in any number of the state’s majestic redwood groves. He is the author of The Covenant of Muirwood Trilogy, The Legends of Muirwood Trilogy, the Whispers from Mirrowen Trilogy, and the Landmoor Series.


Melissa (My words and pages) said...

Great post. It is crazy how ideas just mesh together with different things you see. I know people ask where can I get inspiration and many times the answer is all around you. Some people don't understand that, but this post is a perfect example of just that.

Thank you! And the book looks amazing.

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