All posts by Shauna E. Black

About Shauna E. Black

Shauna E. Black writes adventurous fantasy for tweens and teens. She lives in the high desert of the southwest with her husband and four children, where she finds inspiration for her writing in the many Anasazi ruins near her home. She likes to experiment in the kitchen, perform with local singing groups, and travel to exotic locations to collect wind chimes.

Creating Beauty and Joy

concert-band-orchestra-conductor-musicMy teenagers had the privilege of participating in Honor Band at our school district this week. Our band director brings in guest conductors that spend two full school days rehearsing and teaching the kids. At the end, they put on a concert for the parents. I’m always amazed at how incredible and professional the Honor Band sounds after such a short time of preparation.

This year, we had a rather enthusiastic guest conductor who spoke passionately about the power of music in molding young minds. He pointed out that, in spite of some of the terrible things that go on in the world, it was a pleasure to witness so many young people come together from the far corners of our wide-spread district to create beauty.

I revel in the beauty of art, and I love it when one type of art form inspires another. I can go to an art gallery and see a painting, then find myself imagining a story to go with it. Or, I’ll make a craft that gets my creative juices flowing again when they’re stuck.

For me, music is central to my ability to weave a story.

When I was in high school, my English teacher required us to write in a fiction journal daily (something other students moaned about, but I relished, oddly enough). Once, she turned on some beautiful music, and a vision of a forest and a hunter swept over me until I was writing as fast as my pencil could fly. It was an incredible feeling, to be inspired like that.

I like to create “soundtracks” for the book I’m working on by collecting songs that convey the same mood I’m trying to create in my writing. If I’m having trouble finding the motivation to drag myself to my writing corner, all I have to do is turn on that soundtrack, and suddenly the words are flowing through my fingers.

I’ve often maintained that music is a type of magic. Certainly, it has a lot of power over me. It gives me courage, makes me silly, or cheers me up when I’m feeling sad.

Since we have four girls, the drama around my house can get pretty intense sometimes. One day, my teenager cheered up the younger girls by playing a silly YouTube cartoon song about unicorns and rainbows. It worked like a charm. I’ve had the dubious privilege of hearing that silly song over and over again, any time someone feels upset.

But I’m okay with that, because it makes us all happy. And that’s what art does best, I think: it brings joy into our lives.

 

Celebrate With a Good Book

I’ve always done events in a big way. When I say “big way,” I mean the jaw-dropping, time-devouring, kill-yourself-off, massive-effort kind of way. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to scale back a little whenever I get involved in a project, but the truth is: I love to throw myself whole-heartedly into making something fantastic and fun for other people, especially kids.

Birthdays around my house are usually a slice of over-the-top. I don’t go out and rent ponies or anything, but I always let the birthday girl choose a theme and plan the party around that theme. My favorites are the ones based on books. (I am a chronic bookaholic, after all!) It’s a great way to not only encourage kids to read, but to get them super excited about it! It brings the book to life!

 

fablehaven-05When my oldest daughter was ten, she became obsessed interested in Fablehaven by Brandon Mull. So, I put together a Fablehaven party for her. It was so much fun! I really enjoyed stretching my creative muscles.

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Since her birthday is in the summer, we set up the Fablehaven “preserve” in the backyard, complete with fairies and a naiad pool.

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There was a dragon cake (as you can see, I’m not so great in the cake department, but I try), and a bag of goodies, complete with “umite” wax and “milk” candy to give the kids magical sight.fablehaven-04

 

I loved the Fablehaven theme so much, that I also used it for a haunted house on Halloween. For that, I set up a black light fairy village that was being taken over by the shadow plague.fablehaven-01

 

We also used an animatronic “Fur Real” dog dressed in a costume to play the demon Graulas. He really moved, which was fun for guests!fablehaven-02

So, why not choose a book for your next party theme? I can totally see a Dreamkeeper party. (Hmmm. Maybe that’s my next Halloween haunt!) and a Ginnie West party, complete with horses and a rodeo, or Andy Smithson …. Okay, okay! I could go on and on. With all the tons of books right here on Emblazoners, you’re sure to find something fantastic that can spark a passion for reading in your kids!

Inspiring Myths

My family and I sometimes volunteer to clean our local chapel before Sunday services. It isn’t a task my kids exactly relish, but we feel it’s an important lesson in service. A couple of weeks ago, as we began this task and the kids were moaning and groaning, I told them a story about Christmas spiders to inspire them to cheerfully clean.

christmas-spiderThe legend goes that a housewife was cleaning her home to prepare for Christmas day and dusting away all the cobwebs in the corners. That night, the spiders that had been chased away by her broom returned and saw a beautiful Christmas tree in the home. They were so filled with joy that they crawled all over it to examine it closely. But this left dusty cobwebs all over the tree.

When Saint Nicolas arrived, he saw the joy the spiders found in the beautiful tree, but he knew the housewife would be dismayed to find her tree covered in dingy cobwebs. So, he turned the webs to gold and silver. That’s why we use tinsel on our Christmas tree.

Well, my story worked, and the kids were excited to chase after the church’s cobwebs with their dusters that day.

In thinking about this post, I remembered that Christmas legend, and realized how much I use folktales, myths, and legends to inspire my own writing.

I’ve enjoyed reading about old stories since I was a child and got hold of my dad’s elementary reader with the old-fashioned illustrations and the brittle pages. My favorites are the lesser-known stories from obscure cultures. I think I’ve crammed my head so full of stories over the course of my life that when I sit down to write, elements of those stories get woven in without me even consciously realizing it.

Legends and myths offer a gold mine of ideas for the studious writer. Not only do they often teach important life lessons, but they are full of colorful characters and enchanting situations that can capture the interest of young and old alike. Besides all that, they’re just plain fun to read.

I want to wish all of our readers, and my fellow Emblazoners, a very Merry Christmas and joyful New Year! I hope you and your family feel the spirit of love and peace that make this my favorite season of the year.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a Christmas story to write.

“It was a cold, drafty day in the cottage as Bernard wrapped up the fly he’d just caught in his web to save for Christmas dinner …”

The Importance of Fiction

“There is no better way to waste your time than by reading a novel.”

Now, before you get all huffy and defensive, this quote did not originate from my lips, or even my fingers. It’s something a well-educated, respected member of my local community (who is no longer with us) was often fond of saying. When I first heard it, not so very long ago, I was flabbergasted. I hold this man in high esteem, and to hear that he had belittled a craft I dearly love cut me to the core.

I think, as writers, we grapple with a lot of insecurity. For me, one of the worst is questioning whether I’m doing something worthwhile. I was raised in a religious home where I was taught that my life had great meaning, that I was here to become the best person I could be and make a positive difference in the lives of other people. I believe strongly in that mission, but not until recently did it seem to fit with my passion for writing.

As are most artists, writers are often criticized by our society. Writing is not considered a “real” job, but more of a hobby that foolish or lazy people with too much time on their hands pursue. I succumbed to this mindset last year, when my youngest child started first grade, and I suddenly found I had seven free hours in the day. I had been hoping and dreaming of that moment since the birth of my oldest child because I wanted so much to be a full time writer. And yet, when the day finally arrived, I threw that precious time away and took a job teaching at the school. For whatever reason—money, fear, prestige, trying to live up to other’s expectations for me—for a time I gave up on my dream of being a professional writer.

But no matter what curves life throws me, I always come back to writing.

So it is today. I no longer have a full time job. School has started again, and I am faced once more with seven free hours in the day. This time, I have resisted the urge to “jump sideways,” as I like to put it; to look for another job, or open a new business, or pursue some other “respectable” career. I have decided to focus once again on writing, and I have a plan that I hope will bring me success and a meager income. Because I still feel that I need to justify this obsession I have for writing stories.

And so, I look for reasons why novels are important, after all.

Novels are fiction, entertainment. Does that mean they’re nothing more than fluff? A way to waste your time tickling your fancy and escaping from the real world when there are more important, responsible things you should be doing?

Not all novels are created equal, and there are certainly some that could be a waste of time, but as I’ve pondered lately about the importance of fiction, I’ve found some reasons why I think the answer to these questions is “No.” For instance, a good book can influence the course of society by highlighting and playing out flaws, or teach children and adults the consequences of real-life choices. It can be used to explain an important principle in a way others will understand, and inspire them to overcome hardship.

I heard a story related once about author Tracy Hickman, who was approached by a soldier that served in Afghanistan. This soldier had carried a copy of one of Hickman’s novels throughout his term of duty and, while wounded, had saved the lives of his fellow soldiers because he was inspired by the heroic actions of the character in Hickman’s novel.

That’s the kind of stories I want to write: ones that have deeper meanings beyond the plot of the story. I want to write characters that inspire other people to make good choices in their real lives. I want to craft books that make readers ponder and examine their beliefs. And if I can entertainment a little in the process, then so much the better.

Because, in the end, I don’t believe that I have wasted my life reading and writing good fiction. I believe that there is a reason I love to write; that I have a mission to fulfill as I work to improve my skills; and that someday my books will influence someone else for the better. That is why I read novels. And that is why I write them.

It’s all in the Details

Recently, my husband and I took a weekend trip across our state to see a friend get married. To break up a 7 hour drive, we stayed overnight in a little town where I’d found a good deal online.

It was a motel dating back to the 60s, recently renovated retro-chic to evoke a warm nostalgic feeling for a bygone era. But what impressed me the most were all the little conveniences the owner made available for the comfort of guests. The heater was turned on when we arrived, there were extra toiletries with fresh herbal scents, plush bathrobes usually only found in swanky hotels, and several retro bikes with baskets and big tires that guests could borrow to ride around town in style.  I certainly felt pampered, and I will recommend the place to friends and family.

The owner of the motel didn’t achieve this pampered effect with silk sheets or huge hotel rooms or ten thousand channels of cable TV (when you still can’t find anything good to watch). It was the attention to little plush details that delighted me and made me feel like an honored guest.

There are many times, in my busy modern life, when I fail to notice the little details around me. I’m so focused on getting through my “to do” list, rushing here there and everywhere, that I miss out on opportunities to observe small but important aspects of my surroundings. When I take the time to slow down and pay attention, not only is my spirit renewed with the delight I find in the world, but my creativity is boosted and my writing enriched.

In college, I wrote a short story for a friend of mine who was a pure-bred Wyoming Cowboy. I’m a city girl myself, and I’m sure he thought I didn’t know the first thing about riding the range. But I knew just enough. When he read the story, he was flabbergasted that I had mentioned a saddle creaking when the main character stepped up onto a horse and settled in. It brought the whole story to life for my friend, and made me look like I knew what I was talking about, after all. (Even though I really didn’t ;-))

It’s this mention of small but important details in a narrative that ring true for the reader and bring the story to life. But gathering sensory details isn’t something a writer can do while sitting in a single room, day in and day out. It requires getting out into the open air, smelling the world around you, seeing it, tasting it for yourself. How else will you know how to describe the smell of fall if you don’t stroll around the neighborhood and catch a whiff of rotting leaves the neighbors are raking up? Or what it feels like when the sun dries the pool water off your skin on a hot summer day? These descriptions come from experience and taking the time to pay attention. And it does take time. We can’t all be like Sherlock or that guy on Psych.

That’s why I like to encourage kids to be lazy once in awhile. I fondly remember afternoons from my childhood doing nothing more constructive than watching clouds and deciphering their shapes. To this day, one of my favorite activities is to watch the stars at night.

Recently, while teaching a unit on poetry, I took a class of fifth graders outside to lie on the grass and choose a cloud to write a poem about. They came up with some wonderfully creative poems! Later, I pointed out to the kids that if they wanted to boost their creativity, it was a good idea to gaze at the sky every so often. It was like a revelation to them.

One of my favorite songs comes from the 1952 movie Hans Christian Andersen. He sings about an inchworm while the children are in school reciting their math facts: “Inchworm, inchworm, measuring the marigold. You and your arithmetic, you’ll probably go far. Inchworm, inchworm, measuring the marigold. Did you ever stop and think, how beautiful they are?”

When was the last time you noticed the marigolds?

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Shauna E. Black lives in the high desert of the southwest with her husband and four children. She is the author of Fury of the Storm Wizard, a middle grade novel about wizards in cowboy boots. She likes to bake bread, collect wind chimes, and lie on the trampoline at night to watch the stars.

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