by Peter Leavell, @PeterLeavell
He wanted to be a better man because of a character I created. After a lifetime of alcohol, he stopped drinking. He stopped hitting his wife. He hit off on the TV and took her to a museum and dinner.
He hasn’t looked back.
One of dozens of similar letters about my Western series made me revisit my writing philosophy to figure out why these men are cleaning up their lives and thinking outside themselves.
Of the first longing: Askesis, a spiritual exercise, creating longing. C.S. Lewis was big on fantasy worlds, epic ideals, myths, and fairytales. But what does reading about dragons, villains, mysteries, and the like actually do?
George MacDonald’s Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women is a story filled with fantastic forests, and when I read the story, I looked at real forests with longing and intrigue. I whisked my wife away to our nearby forests for a picnic and hike. And when I read At the Back of the North Wind by the same author, children became individuals to me, not to simply lumps of irritating humanlike beings that need constant supervision, but individually created with gifts and weaknesses combined to make each child special and vital. These longings made me want to be a better man.
So, I wrote a western filled with honor and virtue to heighten a love for ideals beyond our scope of daily living, creating a curiosity to learn more about reality to see what life would be like if we lived with high-minded codes. True, the perfection of these ideals might only be found in heaven, but inside of us, we long for them. There is a real mystery hidden in the pages of the fantasies. In my westerns. In books that draw attention to grand ideas. And those mysteries bring the reader to discover them in real life, adding to the joy in reading.
One the second longing: C.S. Lewis calls the opposite of the first longing a disease. A compensation for what we lack in life. Simple escapism.
The second longing comes from characters who make us dream to be famous. Or lucky. When we read about the girl whose desires come true, and then when we put the book away with little hope our desires will come true, we’re left dissatisfied with little compulsion to act, explore, or be better. A boy who gets special powers he doesn’t deserve or work for, or is asked to be part of a grand adventure that does nothing to change him or given a set of random circumstances that make the other boys who once hated him now look up to him shows no character for the reader to think on.
If we’re unlucky in love and read about characters who have gifts or looks and relationships we wish we had, our desire for betterment is crushed.
Wishful reverie,” CS Lewis says, doesn’t feed on epic stories filled with bettering life, but prefers “stories about millionaires, irresistible beauties, posh hotels, palm beaches and bedroom scenes—things that might happen, that ought to happen, that would have happened if the reader had had a fair chance.”
How to create longing so readers will consider your book more than simply consumable—
- What is the greatest good in your novel? Getting that girl or guy to love the main character? Being heroic and saving people? Reach for something more. Don’t know what that something more is? Then read the Bible, Plato, and search for the definition of ethics and morality. Yes, it’s a lifetime search, and if you read an entire body of a writer’s work, you read his or her search.
- Show (don’t tell) the work it takes to be amazing.
- Life gets gruesome. Show how gruesome. The fine line here is to be gritty and not disgusting. The line is different for every reader. Know your constituency.
- Wrong decisions happen every day. And sometimes, there’s no perfect answer because of sin. I love watching characters navigate impossible decisions. If they can do it, surely, we can in real life.
- Study the fine line between win and succeed. Did Jesus, who died and rose again, win over his enemies, or succeed to bring salvation to all?
Philip Anderson is a reluctant gunslinger whose fame has spread through the Dakota Territory. He can’t escape his reputation as the hero who took down the entire Maxwell Gang, and he’s even had a popular dime novel written about him. All Philip yearns for is to live a quiet life raising horses and to finally marry his beloved Anna. He’d gladly give up his half of the treasure map his murdered father left behind, but until Jacob Wilkes is captured he can never hang up his gun. Bent on destroying Philip and everything he loves, Wilkes has his eye on the hidden cache. And on Anna.
Just when Philip thinks he might be able to bury the demons of his past, the unthinkable happens and Anna and her family are kidnapped. Riding his Arabian mare Raven, he is forced into the race of his life as he desperately tracks his enemies across the desert. Can he rescue Anna before it’s too late? Joining forces with old friends like Teddy Roosevelt and Running Deer, Philip is pushed to the breaking point. Will he ever be free, or must he make the ultimate sacrifice for those he loves under the shadow of Devil’s Tower?
Peter Leavell, a 2007 graduate of Boise State University with a degree in history, was the 2011 winner of Christian Writers Guild’s Operation First Novel contest, and 2013 Christian Retailing’s Best award for First-Time Author. Peter and his family live in Boise, Idaho. For entertainment, he reads historical books, where he finds ideas for new novels. Whenever he has a chance, he takes his wife and two homeschooled children on crazy but fun research trips. Learn more about Peter’s books, research, and family adventures at www.peterleavell.com