In 2012, I was asked the classic question via Goodreads.
Message from Natasha Apr 29, 2012
How did you come up with the idea for The Astreya Trilogy? and did you get writers blocks, if so how did you get past them?
Message from Seymour to Natasha Apr 30, 2012
I didn’t really “come up with an idea” for The Astreya Trilogy. Instead, I came up with an opening sentence that seemed to write itself because it grew out of an experience that was unusually clear, sharp and unique. I had sailed as mate on a traditional Nova Scotian schooner to the south coast of Newfoundland, where we visited the tiny, remote community of Grey River. (You can find it on Google Earth). It was one of those moments that stick in my mind because I was completely THERE, “in the moment,” as they say. Later, when I started to write, the first sentence shared that sense of reality because it was at the intersection of experience and fantasy.
I wrote, “Ancient, round-shouldered mountains met the sea only a little south of where winter held the ocean ice-clad the whole year long.”
Over something like 30 years that followed, I wrote and re-wrote chapters, even junking a whole book. But in all that editing and re-writing, I came back to that sentence. Each time I had to cut and re-write, I knew that I had gone wrong because what I had written didn’t have the reality of those first few paragraphs.
Yes, I did have ideas about Astreya and his world, what happens there and why, but they came along later as I was well into books two and three, and was able to stand back from the process of getting the characters to where they had to go, and realize that I was indeed writing a story that incorporated ideas that I thought important — ideas like love, loyalty, friendship, leadership about which I had attempted to write analytically at various times in my life. But I did not “put the ideas into the book,” rather, I found that they were implied by the story I was writing. I discovered them there, and then let them be there, sometimes tossing out paragraphs where I had tried to shoe-horn some other intellectual idea or concept that really didn’t belong in Astreya’s world.
Writer’s block? I really don’t know what that is. I know there were times when I had to go for long walks with my dogs or soak in my bathtub wondering what would happen in the next chapter and how I could bring the story to a satisfying end, but every time it was focussing on the reality of those opening paragraphs that pulled me through. I spent hours drawing maps and charts and working out exactly how my characters would have to sail their ships and boats, precisely how Astreya had to build a snake-fence, what would happen in the fight scenes, and so on. But so long as I could go into his world, there was never any problem with being “blocked.”
I think it helped me that I spent about 20 years writing and editing the most appalling stuff for government and industry, always for money, always on a deadline, always for someone else; so that when I started to write for me, it was the most fun I have ever had with my clothes on. It was selfish, solipsistic, and really hard on my wife and son, because essentially, I wasn’t there — I was in Astreya’s world. And I could go there with a lap-top balanced on the steering wheel of my car, in a parking lot, waiting for my son to do his jiu-jitsu class, or in the living-room by the fire with a cup of coffee cooling beside me, or waiting in an airport (and almost missing the plane.)
So I can’t tell you how to write, how to avoid writer’s block, or where to find ideas. I can only say, start from something really vivid in your life and with luck you’ll write words that are where reality as you experienced it overlaps with the story you want to write. Then you’ll have the touchstone by which you can test everything that follows.
How will you know that? You’ll just know. You’ll read it over out loud and say, “That’s it! I’ve got it! Holy Whatever, I really CAN write!”
Thanks for asking, Natasha. I enjoyed writing to you.