Writing Original Ideas: Ichabod Kills Common Tropes

You love reading. You love discovering new characters and worlds. Big time readers like yourself eventually run into the dreaded ‘common tropes’ monster. After consuming a few hundred books, characters and ideas take on a familiar shade of prose.

Too Familiar Writing

You’re like, ‘Ah yes, the love triangle again. How original’ or ‘Oh good, another character whose childhood abuse has made him into a serial killer. Never seen that before.’

This is why I am so proud of my serial killer thriller ICHABOD, and why I am excited to share its opening with you here.

Ichabod is an upper-class playwright with no brain disorders and a past filled with nothing but love and peace. There are no apparent triggers to explain why he does the things he does (and why he believes what he believes).

These things involve experimental murder, mass disaster, and igniting a city-wide gang war, among other nefarious deeds. All of this is in the name of enacting his philosophy: crime rates will drop as the population is decreased.

Embrace the Strange

Another unique aspect of my novel is its hero. Detective Stephen Van Tassel is not the world weary boozer you’d expect in a serial killer novel. Instead, he is young and horrifically afflicted by the very disorder which makes him the one man uniquely qualified to solve the riddle of the chaos in Philicity.

He suffers from synesthesia, a blurring of the senses; he experiences the world like few humans ever have. And he remembers everything. He could tell you what the weather was like when he was having a conversation with a stranger ten years ago, and why the number 7 is a fat man wearing swimming trunks, or what the color red tastes like on an afternoon of 35’s.

‘Ichabod’ pits these two original characters against each other. Hunter and prey, haunted and determined, flawed and perfected.

Please enjoy the opening passages:

Continue reading “Writing Original Ideas: Ichabod Kills Common Tropes”

Fablehaven Book Review

Fablehaven is the kind of series you recall with fond memories and feelings, and regret only that you can never read it again for the first time. But you’ll still read it again, of course.

I recall vividly, certain scenes from these books. An early one in the first book especially sticks with me; it is set by the pool in the sprawling backyard on a bright summer morning. Kendra and Seth, young siblings, are swimming when they notice a small assortment of tiny winged insects, abuzz with delight. Dragonflies and butterflies and hummingbirds are all gathered together, staring at a mirror by the pool. Kendra and Seth watch, befuddled by this strange action. Seth flips the mirror over to see if it is the mirror the creatures like, or their reflections. They seem to prefer their reflections.


This scene sticks with me because it is a foreshadowing of fairies, and also an early sign that the strange supernatural world of Fablehaven is all around them, and not another world separated from the mundane by dimensions or doorways. Plus, the innocent curiosity of the kids grounds them as likeable and engaging characters.

A sense of playfulness, combined with the thrill of discovery is perfectly captured by Brandon Mull in this series.

All the best fantasies create a sense of excitement through enthusiastic characters.

They also ground their fantastic elements in reality through realistic characteristics.

Seth is an 11 year old boy whose adventurous curiosity always supersedes his sense of obedience. Kendra is a teenage girl whose responsibility for her younger brother becomes a full time job when they realize they are in a wonderland of otherworldly mayhem, and that Seth is atwitter with the compulsion to investigate. She wants to go home. He wants to be free to do what he wants. Seth gets hungry. Kendra gets annoyed.

How to Blend Magic with Reality

By blending the real and commonplace with talking demons and flying dragons, readers are apt to forgive the unbelievable by suspending their unbelief so that they might enjoy the tale set before them.

Another thing I love about the Fablehaven series is the growing excitement with each book. The ratcheting suspense never lets up. You also get the sense that each book is building to a larger overarching storyline—and that is what makes good fantasies great. Five self-contained stories punctuated by hints of a grander design or force at work.

You couldn’t pay me to choose my favorite of the five books in the box set. They are all equally outstanding. The first is a great introduction to the world of Fablehaven; it doesn’t get overly ambitious and throw too much at us. It allows the story and fantastic elements to grow, slowly introducing bigger uncanny beings. We are even treated to glimpses of the larger plot, quick snippets of dialogue or passing references to some ultimate baddie. All serving to whet our appetite for more Fablehaven mayhem and magic.

Rate that Series

Out of 10 stars, I would give this series 9. Almost perfect. It has everything I could want in a fantasy series, except perhaps for a taste of adult situations, some more mature elements, like the kind you might find in Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files. But that doesn’t matter much, because these books don’t call for it. My own Young Adult fantasy, W.A.N.D. incorporates similar elements, like the thrill of discovery and flawed, enthusiastic characters, with some hints at mature interests. Boy likes girl and fantasizes. Girl snubs boy and outsmarts him.

Brandon Mull’s writing is what I consider ‘non-distracting’ which simply means the author never intrudes with his agenda or tries to sound erudite by adding third-tier synonyms no one has ever heard before. Short sentences, realistic dialogue, and simple straightforward descriptive passages make for fast reads. It’s a lot like The Heroes of Olympus series, in writing style.

I highly recommend this series. Buy the books, and lose yourself for a few weeks in the strange, exciting, sometimes terrifying world of Fablehaven.

Writing Realistic Details to Suspend Your Readers’ Disbelief

To convince your readers that the world you have crafted is real–or at least that it could be real, somewhere–you need to include realistic details.

As Rebecca McClanahan advises in her Guide to Writing More Descriptively: Word Painting, before a writer can pull the reader into the story, ‘she must first convince the reader that the events of the story could actually take place within the world of the story.’

Readers become engaged when they believe. In the world of fiction, where smart readers know they are being played, where it is no secret that the settings are figments of writers’ freaky imaginations, there is only one truly successful method to help them believe.

And that is to give them realistic details to which they can cling when unrealistic characters appear, and when improbable event happen.

When your story—no matter how fantastical it may be—is filled with real-world plants or characteristics or commonplace items, it makes the rest of your tale and the oddities therein seem plausible. In her brilliant tale Mrs. Caliban, Rachel Ingall’s first guides readers through a day in the life of the MC. She fleshes out her character and world with familiar elements, in such rich and vivid detail, that the reader is instantly engaged.

This is a bit of manipulation on the part of the writer. But let’s not be coy—making up stories is our bread and butter, and our readers know it.

By the time the implausible 6 foot 7 inch green monster appears on page 25 of Mrs. Caliban, the reader is prepared to accept its reality in the world of the story. Sure, the reader is shocked. But she is also willing to go along with it, because she has become engaged with the story through Ingalls’ wise application of minute, vivid, plausible real-world details.

Remember though, the details you choose to employ need to be dramatic, not static. Don’t just describe the physical attributes of a radio—use a bit of metaphor to bring it to life. ‘It was one of those old single knob stereos that looked like a gothic cathedral, and the music it produced always always came out in slightly haunting tones.’

When your setting is described imaginatively, as a vivid, active, living force in the world, readers will not become impatient for your human drama to begin. They will happily lose themselves in your imagined world, perhaps even before they get to know your characters.

So when you’re writing your setting, don’t just give a rundown of its physical nature. Bring it to life, even if it is a radio or a wooden box. In my psychological thriller, The Light of Lexi Montaigne, I go so far as to describe a scene from the perspective of a small, hand-carved wooden treasure box. This works, because it lends a surreal tone to a moving scene in a surreal book, and because the box itself is of vital import in the scheme of the narrative.

Details—vivid, life-giving, and realistic. Take your time and be imaginative. Employ metaphor, think outside—and sometimes even inside—the box. Even if your setting is on an alien world, your readers need some familiar object to which they can tether themselves.

For inspiration, check out this opening line to Janet Fitch’s White Oleander: ‘The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw.’

Notice how Fitch breathes life into simple grass through metaphor, calling them ‘whiskers of pale straw’ which conjures images in the mind. She wisely uses the verb ‘shriveling’, a powerful word that readers’ hearts latch onto and which instantly creates vivid pictures in the mind.

You have the knowledge and experience to enhance your writing. Use these tools to draw your readers in, make them suspend disbelief, and to make their minds engage with your world. So do it—and have fun doing it!

Here Mike Duran offers writers 5 ways to help their readers suspend disbelief. Check it out.