February 7, 2021 • No Comments
Who doesn’t love a good coincidence, especially when it involves ghosts?
Recently I was blathering with a friend about contacting the dead (as one does while folding laundry). I’m stocking up on ideas for a new story, and it was an unplanned but fruitful topic. Literally minutes later, I got an email for a virtual event.
Cue Weird Homes Tour and Atlas Obscura featuring Brandon Hodge. Hodge owns an Austin, Texas residence stuffed with Spiritualism-related objects. For one very fun hour, Hodge took viewers through his collection of antique planchettes, Ouija boards, and other paraphernalia.
It was like a gift-wrapped package falling through the monitor and into my lap. Spiritualism fascinates me, and Hodge’s enthusiasm and fab website are an ideal introduction to the subject.
A Victorian Obsession
The Spiritualist movement gained traction in the mid-1800s. It gave us mediums, automatic writing, ectoplasm, spirit photography, and table-rapping.
Essentially, it’s summoning the dead for a chat. Believers included the rich and famous, from Lucy Maud Montgomery to Arthur Conan Doyle.
For a buttoned-up society focused on industry, cataloguing, and petticoats for the piano legs, it’s interesting how Victorians embraced the paranormal. Their enthusiasm can be seen by the many, many periodicals dedicated to the topic, such as The British Spiritual Telegraph.
Mediums achieved a kind of celebrity, like the Fox sisters in America. Some grew rich. Others were ingloriously debunked for coughing up gauze
“ectoplasm” or manipulating the seance props with wires.
The majority of mediums were women. This was one place she could take center stage without question. And, since the bereaved were willing to pay, she could also make a good living.
Spiritualism carried on—unsurprisingly—through the disasters of WWI and the Spanish flu epidemic until fading in the 1930s.
I’ve used the highlights of Spiritualism before. In A Study in Ashes, Evelina and Tobias attend a séance. At the time, I’d wanted to delve more deeply into the subject, but that wasn’t part of Evelina’s story. She simply paved the way for more.
Now—thanks to a chance lockdown presentation—I’m anxious to do more research. After all, what’s more perfect than something that is Victorian, paranormal, and involves intriguing devices? I’m positive there is a role for a planchette or two in my Hellion House series.
August 20, 2020 • No Comments
Would you like me to tell your fortune? For a silver coin, I will consult my tarot cards. Ah, yes, I foresee you’re about to encounter a large to-be-read pile…
I imagined a unique set of tarot cards while planning the Hellion House series. The images in the deck came to me very strongly while I was first making notes about the books. Scorpion Dawn, Leopard Ascending, Chariot Moon—these are all airships, but those vessels got their names from the cards. Fortune’s Eve recounts the first time that tarot comes into play. For those who like to follow story breadcrumbs, pay attention to that scene.
Of course, it had to be a deck I’d never seen before, which meant recording the entire thing as it appeared in the story a bit at a time. Here’s what I know so far…
The deck has five suites (sky, fire, earth, water, spirit) of thirteen cards each. Each suite relates to an aspect of being. For instance, earth rules the material plane.
Most of the images on the cards are single animals, plants, or other straightforward objects.
To cast a reading, lay out the cards in a triangle. They naturally fall into the rising, descending, or hidden positions on the three sides. Therefore, the leopard in an ascending position means that its influence is on the rise and all that fiery animal passion is going a-prowling. The closer it is to the apex of the triangle, the more pronounced its energy will be. If the leopard is on the other side of the triangle, it would indicate the hunt was waning or going awry. If the card was at the bottom of the triangle, it would mean kitty’s energy was turned inward, either asleep or rebuilding for a future time. A fulsome reading would involve a dozen or so cards.
Scorpion Dawn refers to the first awakening of the protective scorpion. The legend has it that when the mighty hunter Orion slaughtered far too many animals, the goddess sent the lowly scorpion to protect her creatures. Too small to be noticed, the scorpion nonetheless poisoned Orion with a sting to the heel. Never underestimate the little guy—or girl—especially if she gets this card.
The main function of the cards in the story is as a means of exploring the characters and their drives. Like all such elements in fiction, it’s a seasoning and not a main dish. Too much and it gets awkward, but it’s a useful way to highlight a moment here and there.
Custom illustration by Leah Friesen
June 14, 2020 • No Comments
Happy book birthday to Flicker, a prequel novella in the Crown of Fae series.
Wait? Why release a prequel halfway through the series? Well, I wanted to tell a story about Fliss, Ronan’s charming little sister and how she met Laren, the dashing water fae. She’s been a supporting character until now deserved a tale of her own. And, that largely happened.
What I wasn’t expecting was that these were TEENAGERS. Whether I liked it or not, my characters were crazy, wrong-headed, adorable, and insane—rather like most of us are at that age. As a result, this book has action galore, school problems, scary teachers, and a dash of sweet romance. This makes it more YA than the rest of the series, but (I think) in a fun way.
What was intended as a short story became a novella. In amongst all that youthful drama, I was able to set up some characters and circumstances that shape the next few books. Keep an eye on that enchanted bird. There might even be a clue to an Easter egg buried in one of the books already out.
For those who’ve read the books so far, the timeline between Flicker and Shimmer is as follows (no real spoilers here):
- In the prequel, Fliss is thirteen.
- The Shades arrived a hundred years before.
- The battle of Ildaran Falls, after which many of the fae fled Faery, was twenty years before.
- After the events of Flicker, Laren joins the older dragons in some of their exploits, becoming friends with Ronan. Ronan and Fliss, however, don’t see much of each other until Shimmer, where she is a fully adult fae.
- Ronan’s journey begins in Faery, but when Shimmer begins, he’s been in the human realms for some time. Since time runs differently in the human and fae worlds—and wherever else he might have been—It’s difficult to measure exactly how many years pass between the two stories, but to Ronan’s perception it is centuries.
And handsome Telkoram? Why yes, we will see him again.
For more about Flicker and to read an excerpt, click here.
Or simply buy it here.
April 27, 2020 • 2 Comments
I started planning the series some time ago, as good worldbuilding (at least for me) needs time to mature. I wanted something that was a little more fantasy and less strictly Victorian than my previous steampunk books, mostly to provide scope for adventure.
I have a fascination with how people live under threat, whether that’s in gated cities or under strict social regulation. Crime doesn’t take a holiday just because everything else is turned on its head. Even dire circumstances, we still manage to form hierarchies, establish ceremonies, build a system and then cheat it. It’s the phenomenon that launched much of reality TV.
When I wrote the Baskerville Affair, I found inspiration in a map that marked the boundaries of various utility companies. This time, I went back to a 1572 map of London and then took a left turn. What if history had gone on as per normal until the Elizabethans, and then…well, science was in a different place back then. What we now regard as fact was mixed up with alchemy, astrology, and theoretical systems we don’t use in the lab these days. Burning witches at the stake was fine entertainment. What better time to unleash something that transmogrified the world?
Fast forward to my characters’ era, in what would have been Victorian London. Cities everywhere are fortified physically and by magic to protect the populace from the wilderness—now occupied by monsters. Airships and river boats are a necessary means of travel, because going by land is suicide. Agriculture is a harrowing endeavour, with private armies and mages on tap. There are dragons, huge wildcats, and the ever-hungry Unseen. Probably Nessie. Undoubtedly trolls. (Please note, there are no zombies, as they are smelly and prone to leaving their body parts in inconvenient places.)
However, because people are people, there are also Society events, fashion, slums, politics, crime, detectives, murder, whorehouses, gentleman’s clubs and newspapers. But civilization comes at a terrible price, as our protagonists discover.
And then there’s the River Rats, and astronomy, and the tarot, but more on that later.
Image by Comfreak on Pixabay
March 6, 2020 • 2 Comments
Here is the map (beautifully done by Zenta Brice) for the Crown of Fae series:
March 2, 2020 • No Comments
Why care about a story’s setting?
A lot of people think of setting description as the specific surroundings where the action occurs. “There was a red camel in the corner.” “The curtains were blue lace with tiny hearts woven into the fabric.”
This is true. Most of us learn to write this stuff when we’re in grade school. We learn to use our specific and colorful words and our imaginations and once we’ve mastered that, every writing book ever tells us these passages of prose are wrong and bad. This is also true.
Setting is way more than a blob of description.
It’s also the “big picture” where the story was set: the Wild West, the Weird West, Las Vegas in the 1930s, the Antebellum South. With that comes history, culture, and the way that society works. This is why, in my opinion, some theatre directors take a huge risk when they move Shakespeare or other stories from one time period to another. If a story is integrated into its setting, it relies on the dynamics of that world. It needs the power structure, the cultural norms, and the societal context of that world to inform it.
One reason West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet) worked as a story was because Arthur Laurents transplanted a story about an Italian gang culture in the renaissance (seriously, what were the big families in the Quattrocento but gangs?) to a modern American gang culture. There are enough common elements in terms of social mores, power structure, and all the things that make action and consequence function that the rewritten story still makes sense. In this way, it’s the setting and all that goes with it that provides an important mechanism for story tension.
Think on a small, specific level (the curtains) and a global one (the Renaissance)
Setting can indicate past, present, or future on both a literal level (story time line) and an emotional one. The book Snow Falling on Cedars (David Guterson) very successfully uses contrasting settings to keep the past and present storylines separate and he makes the tension dance between them. It’s a courtroom drama about the fallout from a Japanese-American internment camp. The way he uses setting to convey mood is brilliant.
Setting is the difference between a script and a movie. It’s all the information—the colour, the history, and the context—that exists around your dialogue and your plot. It’s your costume and stage sets. It often overlaps with character and motivation. It reveals theme, point of view, culture, power dynamics, and emotion.
Setting grounds the story in a time and place and can convey mind set, culture, mood, and personality. Whether your protagonist hangs out in a historic English pub or a moonshine still in the Kentucky woods says a lot about him. For this reason it can be used for situational irony. Most common are fish out of water stories like the shows Hart of Dixie or Northern Exposure. It is a useful shorthand for establishing character.
Setting is context. Consider that readers may not understand the setting of your story, even if they know the city. Think of the difference between The Gangs of New York and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. With a global market for readers, you especially have to explain it to them because other people from other backgrounds or cultures may have no understanding of your story world, even if it is set in modern times.
October 9, 2019 • No Comments
The Hellion House series (the first installment, Scorpion Dawn was introduced in the Rogue Skies box set) involves a great many floating objects. The plot centers around the Fletcher family, who own one of the largest and wealthiest airship fleets in the city. Besides being nifty, the airships serve an important purpose in their adventure.
Don’t leave home without one
Haunted by hungry creatures, the wilderness is extremely dangerous. Humanity has been driven into walled enclaves. No one dares to travel outside the city on horseback, much less on foot. The only options are by water—which is extremely risky—or by airship.
How does humanity retake the countryside from lethal foe? The only way to find allies and solutions is to look outside the city, and the only way reach new friends is through the clouds.
There’s money in the sky
The patriarch of the family, Norton Fletcher, wields considerable social influence. Fletcher Industries has made the family rich and respected even though the founder is a commoner who came from nothing. But every success comes at a cost. Who will pay it?
September 30, 2019 • No Comments
A good book is filled with people we feel we’ve met. We imagine meeting them on the street, or that their name might show up in our inbox. They exist both inside the book and in an extended version of our own reality because they’ve become part of our consciousness. They think, talk, and act in unique ways that aren’t exactly predictable, but they are knowable.
As a reader, we know these unforgettable characters when we meet them. As a writer, it’s not always that simple.
How Do We Create a Character?
There are plenty of books on the topic and they’re all probably right for some author somewhere. Psychological profiling, archetypes, questionnaires—whatever it takes to get the job started is fine if it works. In truth, I don’t use any of the above until much later in the characterization process. My cast tends to walk into my head and start telling me a story. This is simply my flavor of madness.
Once the story is populated, the real work begins. A hero is fine—a hero who is a puzzle to be solved is so much more enticing. Put another way, the worst-written characters are the ones who fulfill all our expectations. The best ones take us by surprise.
Character is conflict
What makes Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde interesting? Spike and Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Mr. Darcy? Ebenezer Scrooge? They fulfill obvious expectations, but deeper down, they have impulses that are the precise opposite of what they seem. Mr. Darcy appears cold and proud, but he’s really loving and thoughtful. Scrooge is a horrible miser, but he has the capacity for generosity. And our darling vampires are nothing if not contrary.
Putting characters into conflict with each other is necessary to build a plot. Putting them in conflict with themselves makes them infinitely more interesting. Those mentioned above are memorable enough they almost exist outside the stories that spawned them. We may or may not remember the specifics of Jekyll and Hyde, but Stevenson’s character has become an icon for a double life.
Let’s build on this idea some more:
One arc or two or three?
How-to books mumble on about how a story needs a plot with rising action, a climax, and conclusion. Essentially, this is like the clothes hanger for the story—we need a plot structure to provide shape so the book is not one big stream-of-consciousness word barf. There are also character arcs, in which a protagonist grows through internal struggle. If your characters don’t cross the finish line with more self-awareness then when they started, we wonder why we spent 300 pages cheering them on. That’s why authors use both an external and internal story arc to accommodate a character’s conflict with the world plus their conflict with themselves.
Let’s use The Lord of the Rings as an example:
- There is a plot arc, which is the external conflict of a story—the rock ’em, sock ’em action component. The hobbits & friends need to chuck the One Ring into Mount Doom. It’s a physical journey with sword fights, drinking, and talking trees.
- Then there’s the internal character arc (arc, not orc) which is Frodo’s private war with the ring and his role in the quest. Is he worthy? Can he resist the pull of the dark side? We know he’s brave and true, but the struggle is real. He can’t resist the darkness altogether and Sam has his hands full keeping Frodo together through that long, long trek through the wasteland.
- In some cases—and they tend to be truly excellent pieces of writing—there is a second, or thematic character arc that intersects the other two.
The Third Arc
I’ll keep using Frodo as an example. What Tolkien does is interesting. Yes, there’s a good versus evil fight for Frodo’s soul, but the conflict has another significant aspect. Throughout the trilogy, there’s a theme around the survival of community. The elves are dwindling. Mines are abandoned. The industrial revolution rampages through the Shire. Even the Fellowship gets sundered early on. Community and cohesion are difficult to maintain in a fading world.
Frodo—the bookish heir of a rebel uncle—becomes the poster child for this thread. He’s an orphan among a people defined by its blood ties. He’s got friends, but generally speaking he’s outside the norm because of his association with Bilbo, a respected figure but a definite misfit. From there, Frodo becomes increasingly separated from the herd. He loses Bilbo to Rivendell, has to leave his home, and is eventually singled out because of the ring. There is no question he loves the Shire and all it represents, but his ties to it gradually fall away until he leaves Middle Earth altogether.
While this progression of isolation overlaps Frodo’s battle with the ring’s power (good versus evil), it’s also a microcosm of the land’s changing nature and forms a secondary dynamic arc (community versus abandonment/withdrawal). This secondary arc adds a melancholy depth to Frodo’s story. Imagine the change of tone if Frodo went home at the end, had a pack of kids, and drank beer with Sam for the next forty years.
Adding a third arc—one intimately tied to the overarching theme of a story—supercharges the character by creating a resonance that extends beyond their individual circumstances. They become larger than life because they mirror the bigger landscape. The trick is to manage this secondary arc with a light hand—too much and it becomes a ponderous sledgehammer.
To summarize, there is no right or wrong method of writing characters, but inner conflict—especially with contrary impulses—will make your protagonist interesting. Adding multiple arcs to the character will further boost their complexity. After all, real people have many issues in their lives. It stands to reason a realistic character will, too.
September 5, 2019 • No Comments
The members of the Rogue Skies box set were asked to provide a dream cast for their books. This is always tricky because actors are by nature chameleons and they may match the character in one role but not in the next. I therefore put a disclaimer on this assembly–these folks match the characters in this photo. That being said, here we go for Scorpion Dawn and the series that follows:
Clockwise from top left:
- Emily Blunt as Miranda Fletcher – a rebel just finding her feet
- Natalie Dormer as Sidonie Fletcher – pretty but with a generous helping of mischief
- Jude Law as Detective Palmer (because Jude Law appears in every movie ever)
- Aidan Turner as Gideon Fletcher. It was the disgruntled eyebrows that sold me.
August 8, 2019 • No Comments