The creation of Kendra Kandlestar: A picture is worth 43,561 words


Well, it’s hard to believe, but it’s been ten years since the publication of the first book in my Kendra Kandlestar series, The Box of Whispers.

To commemorate a book that has given me so much, I thought I would do a series of posts on some of the inspirations and imaginings that went into the creation of that book—and, ultimately—the whole series…

* * *

The Land of Tween is a secret, magical place
inhabited by talking animals, Gnomes and other Faerie folk.
If you wish to find this enchanted land,
look between Here and There—but be warned!
It is surrounded by Giants, Trolls and a
great many terrible monsters. So perhaps it’s best
to turn the page and visit Tween from the safety of your favorite reading chair…

een_book_gardenAnd so began the adventures of Luka Long-Ears and the Box of Whispers, all those years ago, when I set out to write a story that would capture the elements that I so loved as a child: magic, monsters, and mystery.

Of course, if you know the adventures of Kendra Kandlestar, then the first thing you’re wondering is who in the name of all things Een is Luka Long-Ears? And what is the Land of Tween?

Well, long before there was Kendra, Uncle Griffinskitch, or even the Land of Een, there was a much different story brewing in my imagination. This is typical of writing. I think it’s pretty safe to say that most authors don’t have a perfectly-conceived story in mind when they begin working on a project.

It’s kind of like farming. (A metaphor that I feel entitled to use since I grew up on a farm and spent many a long day toiling in our orchards and fields. And the chicken coop. But that doesn’t help this particular metaphor, so let’s set that one aside for now.) Yes, the seeds—the originating ideas—get planted. Then begins the hard work of cultivating (writing) and fertilizing (adding in more ideas) and, eventually, editing (rather like weeding). Along the way, the story begins to sprout and blossom, but sometimes it shoots off in different directions—and some things which you try to weed out keep coming back. But that’s okay—when it comes to weeding, sometime those weeds take over the garden in a way that is most helpful. (Though, my mother will tell you that weeds are never helpful when it comes to farming.)

The process of creating Kendra Kandlestar and the Box of Whispers was no different. It can be very exciting to create a story—but it can also involve some heart-breaking decisions, and there were many ideas and characters that I had to change along the way.

To begin with, the whole story for Kendra Kandlestar and the Box of Whispers grew from a single idea I had one day in the spring of 2002. Thing is, I wasn’t setting out to write a story—not at first. All I wanted to do was paint a picture of some small creatures creeping past a giant eye. As I sketched some concepts of this scene in my head, it became apparent that the big eye belonged to a snake-like dragon and that the tiny creatures—mostly little animal critters—were sneaking off with a valuable treasure.

Eventually, those sketches became the painting you see below. I guess I had a lot of Tolkien in my head at the time, for I think the scene is rather reminiscent of The Hobbit, what with the red dragon and the vast sea of treasure.

The Painting inspired by The Hobbit that inspired Kendra Kandlestar and the Box of Whispers

After I finished this painting, I taped it to my studio wall and left it there for a few weeks. I often due this with new artwork, just to see if I still like it after awhile. (I tend not to trust my initial reactions.) Well, every time I passed by this painting, I found myself stopping to contemplate it. Not for its artistic merit—that’s for sure. But what captured my interest was that I clearly felt there was a story at work in this scene. But what was it? Here were some tiny creatures sneaking past the beast with a box and a key. But what was the significance of these items? Why would they be so concerned with the box and the key when they are surrounded by all this gold? And who were these characters anyway?

As I pondered these questions, a few ideas began to germinate. Clearly, the box was valuable to the characters. I decided it must contain something very precious. But what? Over the course of a few days (perhaps it was weeks), it became clear to me. The box contained secrets . . . but not just one secret, or the secrets of one or two characters. It contained all the secrets in the land where these tiny characters lived.

And so the ideas for The Box of Whispers was born. What began as a mere painting turned into a story of some 43,561 words!

In the next post in this series, I’ll discuss the evolution of some of the characters…

A new year, a new project

I’m still finishing up work on the final installment in my Kendra Kandlestar series, The Search for Arazeen, but all the heavy lifting is done. That means I can begin in earnest on a whole new project!

This new idea is something that has been percolating in my brain for a long time, almost seven years! I haven’t had the time to devote to it during all this time so, up until now, it has just leaked out here and there in the form of  sketches and notes.

I’m sure I’ll be sharing a lot of this project as it evolves over the months ahead. But for now, I’ll just share a page of doodles . . .


Editing, the good old-fashioned way

Even though I’m currently on a reading tour, I’ve been spending my evenings working hard on editing (and illustrating) Kendra Kandlestar and the Search for Arazeen.

I’m at that critical process where I’ve actually printed out the manuscript and am reading it the old-fashioned way, in advance of handing it over to my editor.

I do this with each book, and each time I get to this point, I ask myself the same question: “Do I really need to print it out?” After all, I’ve usually edited the manuscript on screen a dozen times by this point. But, every time I’m surprised at how many serious edits I make at this stage.

So, while it may not be so good for the trees, it’s very good for achieving a better story. Personally, I believe it’s because I’m away from the distraction of my computer screen, and all those pesky red or green squiggly lines telling me that “Trooogul” is not a word and that he has atrocious grammar. (And, yes, I know I can make a custom dictionary . . . but it never seems to be able to keep up with all my character names and their various ways of expressing themselves. Such is the downside of creating your own fantasy world.)

In the case of The Search for Arazeen, I have found myself resculpting a few key scenes during this round of editing. One of these scenes is a critical moment between Kendra and her main antagonist in the novel, Shuuunga, the Unger witch. This scene is a tricky one, as it needs to accomplish a great many things in terms of character development and plot.

I found myself getting a little stuck while editing this scene. As it happened, I had some of the drawings alongside my binder, so I ended up migrating over to one of the illustrations and began sketching anew. Before I knew it—ta da! I had ironed out the wrinkles in the scene.

Of course, I usually draw as part of the brainstorming process, but this might be the first time I’ve ever drawn my way out of conundrum encountered during the editing stage.

In any case, the technique seems to have worked. Of course, my editor may well disagree once she gets her hands on the manuscript. But that’s a battle for another day . . .


Kendra Kandlestar’s New Year resolution

Uncle GriffinskitchWell, not that kind of resolution. I’m talking about the final pages of Kendra Kandlestar and the Search for Arazeen.

Back in December, I reported the important milestone of finishing my first complete draft of the book. It was at that point that I sent out the manuscript to my group of trusted others to solicit their feedback.

Mostly, the response was positive, though one comment was consistent: everyone hated the ending. The climax was fine, it was the very end, the last chapter that shows what happens after all the dust settles. I wrote this chapter very quickly, and made it short and sweet. I already felt this book was quite long (the longest in the series yet) and so just wanted to tie everything up and leave the reader wanting more.

Turns out I accomplished that goal. I left the reader wanting more, all right—just not in a good way. Every single reader felt the ending was far too abrupt, as if I had suddenly just switched off the electric.

This whole process has been interesting to me. I’ve never written a series before, so this is the first time I’ve had to tie up not one, but five stories. I found it very difficult. Perhaps it’s because I was having trouble getting excited about this chapter; after all, all the good stuff already happened in the climax. Or perhaps, it’s just been hard to bid farewell to a magical world that has consumed my attention for over a decade.

The irony here is that I always preach to my students about the importance of a resolution. In fact, I have an entire module for it. If you have ever been one of my students, chances are that you received my criticism for abruptly ending a story.

I suppose that you sometimes just have to take a sip of your own medicine. So, over the holiday season, I pondered all the criticism I received about the ending from my trusted others, and started planning how I could rewrite it. There was a lot to consider. How much do I tell about the characters? Do I show them days after the climax? Weeks? Or do I do it in the fashion of Harry Potter, and show my characters several years in the future? (Though, I must say here, that I feel like I already did that in Book 4, The Crack in Kazah; if you remember, Kendra is given a glimpse of her ancient self in that book.)

Well, after my lengthy rumination, I returned to my manuscript in earnest last week and rewrote that critical last chapter. I have to give credit here to my fiancée, Marcie, who came up with a stellar idea that I could use as a framework for this critical last scene. If this current version of the chapter sticks, you’ll be treated to a little farewell party with all of your favourite characters . . . and catch a glimmer of what they’ll get up to after the last page of this last book is turned.

Inspirations from The Hobbit

With all the recent hype surrounding the theatrical release of  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I find myself recalling my early inspirations for Kendra Kandlestar and the Box of Whispers. It was ten years ago and I had just finished writing my first published book, Corranda’s Crown (thankfully now out of print!). I wasn’t sure what I would write next, so I just ended up doing a lot of painting. One of the pieces I produced was this one:

The Painting inspired by The Hobbit that inspired Kendra Kandlestar and the Box of Whispers

This painting clearly riffs on The Hobbit, a story that has fascinated me since I was a boy. Truth be told, my first connection to Tolkien’s world was not through his books, but through the wonderful animated version of The Hobbit that was made in the 1970s. Over the years, I was exposed not only to the books, but to all of the wonderful artwork that was produced of Middle Earth.

Myth & Magic: The Art of John HoweAs an interesting side note, the premier illustrator of Tolkien’s world, John Howe, is Canadian by birth and, in fact, spent some of his youth in the same rural community—Keremeos—that my mom grew up in. If you want to explore Howe’s visionary take, then I encourage you to find a copy of the wonderful book, Myth & Magic: The Art of John Howe.

In any case, at the time I produced my humble painting, I had just re-read The Hobbit, so images of Middle Earth were vividly dancing in my imagination. Of course, at the time, I wasn’t thinking that my painting would lead to a book; I was just painting for fun. Don’t ask me how or why I chose the particular characters who are sneaking past the dragon. I just followed my whimsy and ended up with this peculiar gang of misfits.

When the painting was completed, I hung it on my studio wall, as is my custom, and left it there for a few weeks to see if I liked it. Funny thing is, I found myself concocting a little tale in my imagination to go along with it. I began asking myself, “Who are these characters?” And, “What’s inside that mysterious box?”

Detail of concept painting inspired by The Hobbit.

Well, the next thing I knew, I was answering these questions in my sketchbook. Then, to cut a long story short, I ended up writing Kendra Kandlestar and the Box of Whispers. Alternate cover for Kendra Kandlestar and the Box of WhispersNot all of these original characters survived my writing process to make it into the final book. You can probably guess that the rabbit became Kendra Kandlestar, but I wonder if you can find the precursors of Uncle Griffinskitch or Professor Bumblebean?

I never thought about my audience at the time, but Kendra Kandlestar has ended up being a sort of Hobbit for kids. The publisher thought it would be ages 8-12, but really, it’s turned out to be more for 7-11, with many parents and teachers reading it to their five- and six-year-olds. I suppose it’s all of the illustrations that call down to those younger kids.

There have been comparisons to the later books in the Kendra series to Lord of the Rings (I think Agent Lurk and Trooogul obsessing over the shard from Greeve has something to with that). Personally, I tend to think those books owe more to Star Wars than anything else . . . but I’ll leave you to be judge of that.

Kendra Kandlestar and the Search for Arazeen ~ Update!

Kendra KandlestarI just finished my first complete version of my manuscript for Kendra Kandlestar and the Search for Arazeen, start to finish.

I actually completed it a few days ago, then woke up in the night and decided to rewrite the critical end scene. I worked on it for an afternoon, decided to go back to my original—and then rewrote it again to create a sort of hybrid for the two different versions. I’m still not sure about it, but I’ve left it with my “trusted others” to see what they think. Personally? I feel like the end is a bit like a Shakesperian play, with this character and that all entering and exiting the “stage” at one point or another. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not.

There has been a lot to accomplish in this last book in the series. I want to make sure that all the favourite characters have their moment in the spotlight, and I want to also make sure we (the readers and me) are able to bade farewell to certain settings or elements of the series too.

Of course, it would be wrong to say that I’m finished the book. There will be many edits and perhaps some major rewrites of certain scenes. And there are many illustrations to do as well . . . over a hundred!

Nonetheless, a certain milestone has been reached, so I get to celebrate Ald Meryn’s Eve with a certain peace of mind.

Plotting the battle for Een

I feel like my writing has slowed to a crawl these past couple of weeks; it hasn’t been that I’ve been neglecting the work. In fact, I’ve been diligently getting up early each day to slug it out with my words. The hitch is that I’m currently writing the final battle that occurs at the very end of the series between the Eens and the armies of Shuuunga, the Unger witch.

It’s not easy to plot an entire battle. (In fact, I teach a whole workshop on the subject, called The Writing Rumble.) There’s so much to keep track of:

  • Setting
  • Scope and scale
  • The characters
  • The motivations
  • The weapons and armour of attack and defense
  • The strategy and logistics of each side
  • The description (how much or how little detail do you provide?)

Unfortunately, I have an extra complication in the writing of this scene that I can’t quite get into here. Suffice it to say that it has to do with a certain limitation of Kendra during this final epic scene, which, as it turns out, has forced me to be very creative. Of course, there’s not just Kendra to worry about. There’s also Trooogul the Unger and some other favourites such as Honest Oki, Ratchet Ringtail, Uncle Griffinskitch, and Juniper Jinx. Even some new minor characters, such as Mercy Moonwing the hummingbird and Shuuunga the Unger witch, will get their moments. Oh, and of course, Burdock will stick his long pointy nose into the action too!

In any case, I always turn to my sketchbook to accomplish the plotting of complicated scenes. Here’s my thumbnail snapshot of the final battle of Een:

Plotting for the Battle of Een

Admittedly, my battle doesn’t appear that epic on this page. Let’s hope it has a grander impact in the final words and pictures!