Los Angeles, 1968: Ed Terwilliger’s wife has been murdered, and only the old ceramic gnome in the garden knows the truth of what happened. As the gnome leads Ed closer to learning the identity of his wife’s killer, he finds himself at the heart of a conspiracy that reaches all the way to Lyndon Johnson’s White House. Fantasy meets political thriller in this novel of prophecy and Cold War intrigue.
What does the gnome know? Michael Stiles, author of ‘Forest of the Mind’ has kindly joined me today to explore the knowledge base of the gnome in question. Michael thanks for chatting with me today. Now I have to ask, what inspired you to bind a garden gnome, murder and Cold War intrigue together within the pages of a single story?
Sometimes, when I’m trying to sleep, I’ll see things running around my bedroom that exist only in my own head. Dreaming with my eyes open, I guess. One night in 2004, I saw a very small man run out of the bathroom. He was about six inches tall. When he saw me, he turned and ran back into the bathroom. This gave me the idea of the creepy gnome who shows up in Forest. That idea later converged with some concepts that grew out of reading Helter Skelter (Vince Bugliosi’s disturbing book about the Charles Manson murders) and biographies of Jim Morrison, George H. W. Bush, and William Blake.
*Laughs* Gnomes in the bathroom! That is awesome, and one of the best inspirations for a story that I’ve heard to date! What kind sorts of concepts grew out of reading Helter Skelter and the slightly less distributing biographies did you find that you needed to research further to integrate with the tale of your central gnome?
I did tons of reading to prepare for writing the Terwilliger series. I read about politics of the 1960s and 70s and 80s, Vietnam, conspiracy theories, forensic chemistry, a cult called The Process Church of the Final Judgment (which was actually a thing), the poetry and visions of William Blake, and the fascinating life of Candice Bergen. I also traveled to scout locations, including a trip to Los Feliz, California to see the house on Waverly Drive where the horrible LaBianca murders occurred.
Wow, that’s a huge array of different ideas that you spanned during research. How did the development of the personalities of your characters develop alongside the plot amongst all of these ideas? Did you find that the personalities of the characters were formed by the plot, or was it the other way around?
The characters’ personalities drove the plot, not the other way around. The main character, Ed, is a bit of a goofy guy who has been through some bad stuff and starts out the story as a rather bitter guy. He stumbles into some crazy situations and emerges as a better person in the end. The plot of the story is really Ed’s journey from being totally lost to finding a purpose.
Was communicating Ed’s purpose the most important point that you hope you readers take from the novel? Or do you feel that there was another more valuable element for readers to pick up?
Sometimes you learn little factual titbits that are incredibly fascinating, like the fact that Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys once came home to find that the whole Manson Family had moved into his house. I love learning these little factoids and thinking of ways to tie them together as part of my stories. The most important thing I want to say in my books is that life is truly weird, everything is connected in some way, and every person has an interesting back-story.
*Laughs* I didn’t know that about Dennis Wilson, but I would have loved to be a fly on the wall to find out how that conversation went. I think that factoid really does highlight your prominent point that life is weird. For you what was the most rewarding aspect of working on this weirdly wonderful project?
Finishing. I don’t find the writing process to be very enjoyable, but being done is quite satisfying. I also love hearing from readers who have enjoyed my books. One high point was when a reader sent me a note to tell me that he had witnessed one of the historical events that I wrote about in Forest, and the scene I described was just as he remembered it. That was thrilling feedback to hear.
Now that is a thrill that you don’t experience in most reviews! What have your learnt from your experience writing this book?
Writing something is actually not that hard. Writing something *good* is extremely hard, and you have to write a lot of mediocre stuff to start to discover what works. I spent 10 months writing the first draft of Forest, and another 6 years rewriting it. I threw away around 200 pages of material during my rewrites, almost half of the finished product. When I wrote my second book (Music of the Machine), the ratio of junk to decent material was a lot lower.
Wow, throwing away so many pages of material would be disheartening, but I’m glad to see that stuck through it and it’s clear that it has improved your process for the second book. If you could go back in time and change how you approached that first book, what would you do differently?
I would have started ten years earlier.
You do always wonder what you were doing ten years ago don’t you? But as we can’t change the past let’s look to the present and future. What’s next in store for you writing career?
Right now I’m laying out the floor plan for the third book in this series. It takes place in the 1980s against a backdrop of Iran-Contra and eighties pop culture, with ‘Mr. Belvedere’ on TV and Def Leppard on the radio.
Ooohh, it sounds quite intriguing, and I like the idea of using a floor-plan as opposed to a plot outline to plan your next book. Do you find that strictly planning out the end of story before you start is important for your writing progress?
Yes, I have to know the beginning and end before I can figure out what happens in the middle. By the time I started writing Forest in 2004, I had a pretty solid idea what would happen in the second and third books as well as the first.
Do you write down those solid ideas for the upcoming books in something like an idea’s log, or do you just keep them in your head and let them change as required?
I do keep a list of ideas that come to mind, both plot ideas and character concepts. Sometimes I flesh out ideas into full outlines to see where they’ll go. Mostly, though, my writing time is spent on the Terwilliger series.
How do you approach your time writing to make sure you are effective and get the most out of it?
If I don’t write every day, momentum is lost and my progress slows to practically zero. I have to get something written every day, even if it’s only a paragraph.
Is writing that small amount each day enough to keep writer’s block at bay?
I experience some sort of blockage every time I sit down to write. It’s a daily experience, and I have to just write something (anything) to keep going.
Do you keep going through editing as well, or is this something that you find is best sent to a third party to free up time for more writing?
I do all of the editing myself. As I finish writing a few chapters, I send them to some trusted readers for harsh feedback. Then I edit, rewrite, retrace my steps, etc., and send it back for more feedback.
Although editing, rewriting and retracing your steps, sounds very time consuming I think that we can agree from the feedback you’ve received that your writing adventures have proved effective. Michael, thanks for joining me today to share ‘Forest of the Mind’ and I hope that you are able to find faster progress with your next writing projects.
Excited to read the book we discussed today? Find it here on Amazon: ‘Forest of the Mind ( ASIN: B008TAW02O )‘.
Want to find out more about Michael Stiles? Connect here!