Time After Timing

Before I begin this week’s blog, I must quickly apologize for how sporadic the blog’s been recently. Still trying to figure out how to balance deadlines, i.e. making sure my novella’s making timely process before its ultimate due date of April 30th while remembering to come up with blog topics. I’ll hopefully be better about this once the first draft is done and I’m onto the editing stage, but we all have things to learn as content creators, now don’t we?

In a similar vein is the topic of this week’s blog, which is one of the first things I had to learn as a writer: timing.

Back when I got my start writing fanfiction, I was notoriously bad at timing. Part of this was because I was so excited to just be writing cool ideas that I wrote whatever came to mind and let the story guide me—the ultimate pantser, so to speak. Which would’ve been fine if I didn’t write “hot off the presses” and posted updates as soon as they were written (which the posting guidelines for fanfiction.net explicitly warned us not to do back in the day). I was notorious for scenes dragging on too long, only to suddenly crash into the ending with no foreshadowing because that’s what I happened to write that afternoon. Perhaps that’s why I’m such a vicious plotter and self-editor now?

Either way, I’d like to think that years of constructive criticism from readers and workshops have helped me turn timing into one of my strengths in my writing, instead of a glaring weakness. I put a lot of thought into how I pace my stories, and that’s weighing particularly heavy on my mind this week as I near the end of my novella’s first draft. Thus, I’m going to talk about a couple of tips and tricks I’ve picked up about timing, so I can get into the headspace of puzzling out how I’m writing this ending.

  • There’s a delicate balance between action and rest. No matter how much is happening in your story, characters still need a moment to breathe and process what’s going on. Without such respites, they won’t have time to reflect on what’s happening—and neither will your readers. How much time you need depends on what kind of story you’re writing. If the action scenes are few but really need to stand out, you can get away with having more time to reflect and build character. A film that’s actually a great example of this is the movie Redline; there are two big races, one at the beginning and one at the end, and the rest is building up characters and stakes while gearing up for the ultimate race. On the other hand, if you’re trying to keep the characters and readers on their toes, however, you can actually pull off interrupting a calmer scene with a sudden beat of action, something Cordelia Kingsbridge does well in Can’t Hide From Me.

  • From a technical standpoint, reading tends to drag on if the sentences and paragraphs end up the same length; the repetition becomes monotonous. Furthermore, structure can be used to convey mood and tension. Action tends to be clipped. Clipped sentences. Short paragraphs grab our attention. But if the sentence goes on longer, it usually signifies a calm in the action…or at least that things are slow enough that the protagonist can stop to notice and think about things. Changing things up in your sentence structure like this will actually help the flow, amongst other things.

    (On a related note: Sentence structure can also be used to differentiate character voices. When reading “Bones and Bourbon,” note how Jarrod is more curt and thus uses shorter sentences that are to-the-point, while Retz has a tendency toward longer but more casual sentences.)

  • I often work with multiple protagonists in my longer stories, so timing becomes important in order to maintain consistency in the story. It’s not a matter of rehashing the same timeframe or event with different characters; seeing the same thing on repeat bores readers unless there’s enough variance between the differing POVs. I tend to utilize switching between POVs to escape lulls in the story. In “Bones and Bourbon” for example, there’s a lot of travel that takes place, and the Gallows brothers aren’t always in the same location. Readers don’t need to see the entire journey, so I use that as a time to swap, such as when Jarrod gets hired by a client and is traveling to them for more details, so I let him travel while seeing what Retz is up to in the interim.

    Showcasing the same scene in different points of view can be a little trickier, especially if you’re trying to see the same moment for both of them. The trick here is that if you rewind or fast-forward time so one protagonist can catch up with the other, to do so in small increments. When Jarrod and Retz reunite, I reach the scene first in Jarrod’s POV, where he notices evidence that his brother’s shown up, but how and why is a mystery. When I return to Retz’s POV, I only go backwards by a scene, showing his lead-up to how he leaves the evidence behind, and then continue moving forward. If I had moved too far back—such as having Retz’s chnapter start an entire day before what just took place in Jarrod’s scene—it would be too much of a difference for the readers. (Unless, of course, Retz’s chapters were always a few days before Jarrod’s, but I would have to keep that consistent.)

  • I’ve always been fascinated by parallels, callbacks, and reprises, those spaces in a story that echo an earlier event in some way. Sometimes this is to repeat an emotional response, and other times to subvert it, but either way requires timing to pull off. A silly example I remember from my childhood (so you don’t have to) was the pilot movie for the short-lived TV Show Buzz Lightyear of Star Command. In one fight scene, Buzz Lightyear is training a robot companion and says “You’re good, but I’m better,” only for the robot to destroy a bunch of enemies and repeat the line back at him, echoing the sentiments of heroism and one-upmanship…only to get shot by the main bad guy, who then echoes the line again, still boasting but considerably more sinister. While it showcases both uses of a callback quite well, it all takes place over the course of about one minute—without time for the line and its implications to settle, the repeated line just becomes annoying at best.

I could go on, but blogs are bidden to timing too in order to keep readers’ attention, and letting your eyes glaze over at this rate would defeat my point. Timing is a delicate act, and to complicate it further, everyone has different preferences over it—just look at the debate over pacing in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. In the end, like any writing technique, timing becomes a matter of not just skill, but preference, style, and what suits the story best.

Now dear readers, I believe it’s time for me to get this novella finished.

~Dorian

Madness to the Methods (On Editing)

In lieu of blogging last week, I instead worked on the first round for editing on “Bones and Bourbon” before it releases. However, this was technically an optional round; my editor isn’t actually starting his work until February. I had a couple reasons why, so I figured I would share the most important ones with you dear readers. Even if you aren’t an author in the midst of the writing/editing process, I hope it still provides an informative look at what goes on backstage before a book goes live.

1. How Do These Work Again?

As I was originally querying for “Bones and Bourbon,” I was also working on the other books in the series. The second book was finished and sent to my beta reader and I began work on book three. Amongst other things, the third book prominently features the furaribi, Japanese fire-spirits first seen in “Bones and Bourbon.” When I started working on that, I decided to brush up on furaribi facts for ideas…and realized that more information had been dug up about these obscure supernaturals, which I had missed out on while writing the later “Bones and Bourbon” drafts because I’d lived in The Middle of Nowhere with all its dial-up internet glory.

I’d fixed most of these details before sending the novel to NineStar Press. However, now that I’ve written about half of the third book and settled on a few other worldbuilding details, I wanted to make sure that all the details for the furaribi worked between the two books. A minor example of one such detail was that originally, Aimi mentioned being only sixteen, and furaribi lifespans were implied to be much like human ones. After the research and edits, furaribi are much longer lived—Aimi still looks like a teenager, but there are hints that she’s far older than her looks suggest…

Other supernatural details also had to be doublechecked for logic and consistency, such as how huldra bodies operate (could/would a hollow body still be able to produce sweat and tears?), whether the details of the occasionally-used alchemy made sense, and so on. After seeing how other authors have changed the rules of their magic mid-story and thus created plotholes (unless Harry Potter’s Hagrid is MEANT to secretly be the most powerful wizard who taught himself wordless magic), I’ve decided to err far on the side of caution when it comes to making my universe work.

2. Wait, That’s Offensive!

Not only do I hail from the Middle of Nowhere, without access to much media, and also in a predominantly small town of predominantly average white folks. Most of what I learned from diversity was learned from my time at Mills College down in California, and then by actively seeking diverse voices in literature and social media since then. Much as I try, I’ll be the first to admit that I still have a lot to learn about being a good ally.

As I discussed earlier in a twitter thread, I didn’t realize that albinos were often portrayed as villains or enigmatic, otherworldly beings, and how damaging that stereotype is. It makes complete sense when thought about, but not knowing any albinos personally, I simply didn’t think about it until someone brought that up. Problem was, “Bones and Bourbon” originally implied that main antagonist Nalem’s original body and thus true form…was albino. Erk.

Thus, during this edit of “Bones and Bourbon,” I removed all references of Nalem being albino and even changed a couple scenes and concepts around to fit this. I could’ve chosen to ignore the stereotype, clung to how long the character had been this way (I even had commissioned art of that particular design), and simply resolved to make it up in a later story while maybe subverting the stereotype somehow in this one. But if I did that, I still would’ve added to that damaging stereotype now, and potentially hurt my readers in the process. I’d rather spend a few hours changing details in my novel than spread harmful stereotypes for however long my book is read.

Another note I should add is to doublecheck words that refer to a minority group—be it race, sexuality, disability, or any other group—and make sure that the group that word is referring to doesn’t find it offensive. Some words used to be in common use and are now considered offensive (I know I caught one that had somehow snuck its way into my book). Others are words we’re told are offensive, but the minority group actually prefers it (such as discussions I’ve seen about those who are disabled preferring that term instead of “differently abled” or other such tip-toeing phrases). We creators don’t get to decide what is and isn’t offensive to people outside our experiences, so make sure to defer to the experts who’ve lived it.

3. A Season of Consistency

When I first wrote “Bones and Bourbon,” the story was set in Autumn, right around protagonist Retz’s birthday. It was full of pure Oregon atmosphere, full of pouring rain, falling leaves, drowning rain, apple harvests, early frosts, and even more all-consuming rain. For a variety of reasons, I decided that atmosphere was better suited for the second book, and thus I booted “Bones and Bourbon” back a couple months, to the end of July and beginning of August. Contrary to popular belief, Oregon does mostly take a break from the rain during the summer, especially during the last couple years where it’s instead been on fire.

I thought I’d edited out all the rain, save for one scene where I planned to keep it in (because what’s Oregon without at least a little rain?) Readers, I had to rearrange whole fight scenes to remove mentions of splattering mud and blood intermingling with the rain. I even found other consistency issues I’d somehow glossed over, including a reference to an encounter that was no longer in the book. Glad I caught that before readers could ask what that fight was about and how a taser got involved.

4. Making a Career of Evil

Villains are fun to write. Villains are also hard to write, because it’s so easy for them to seem funny instead of scary. Dracula may sound scary, but how terrifying can an elder vampire be when he’s seen bashing himself against a window in bat-form because there’s too much garlic in the way?

Many great villains get a chance to monologue about their evil plans, and Nalem gets his chance to shine in the middle of the book. When I read through this speech during my edits, however, I found it to be all style and no substance. His rivals were right to mock him, and I almost joined in! You can’t take a villain seriously if even the author thinks he’s all bark and no bite. I’d also developed a bit more about his past schemes and modus operandi while writing the later books, so I rewrote his speech both to sound more sensible to his audience and to better fit his plans later in the series.

These are by no means the only edits I did, and I’m sure the editing process is far from over, but at least I got these four main issues out of the way. Now more than ever, I’m excited that I’m actually in the process of publishing my first novel, and in a few short months, it will be available for the world to read. I must admit that it’s a little scary too, mostly because once this book is published, so many details for the rest of the series will be set in stone, and that means no more last-minute edits to fiddle with details like this. As an author, that’s just something I’ll have to learn to contend with: to finally let the story just be.

Hope you’re as ready for the final form of this story as I am.

~Dorian

Star Studded Settings

I don’t usually give much thought to celebrities (I only recognize a handful, if we’re being honest), but today marks the second year David Bowie’s been gone, and just a little over a year since Carrie Fisher’s passing, so I’ve been mulling over the concept a bit. It’s an impressive concept, to be so well-known and loved (or hated, in some cases) that your mere existence affects the social landscape, that people who’ve never met you have had their lives changed by your work. I know I cried when Bowie passed, and nearly did again during a certain scene with Fisher in The Last Jedi.

Naturally, I got to thinking: how does the role of a celebrity affect fictional worlds? Of course, there’s the celebrity as a character in their own right, from royalty in need of rescuing, or the childhood hero who doesn’t quite stack up to the legends. Instead, I began thinking of the celebrity as a part of setting; we create the specific royalties and pantheons for the worlds we create, but what about those folks the populace looks up to? Perhaps more importantly, what do your characters think about such celebrities, even if they never chance to meet?

Consider a couple ideas…

  • First off, what kind of celebrities might exist in your setting? Are they similar to those in our world, such as musicians and actors? Is it a fantasy world where adventurers are praised? A paranormal romance where werewolf wrestling is a key sport in the occult underground? Fans arguing over which of their favorite space diplomats have initiated more successful first contacts? Consider your setting’s culture and values, and use that to determine what its people would be fans of.

  • Need to showcase the passage of time and its effects? Use news about your celebrity. Say a tyrannical government is cracking down on free speech, so suddenly the concerts of everyone’s favorite musician is being canceled, but those in the gossip chain heard that he can now be found at a hidden speakeasy. Or a politician fell from grace during book one, but a calamity struck in book two and she helped with the reconstruction efforts, so she’s now back in the people’s good graces by book three.

  • Social events follow celebrities like felines to catnip, and these can be great scenes to showcase a different side of your character. What would force them to end up at a dance, a playwright’s newest show, a high-stakes competition crowded with onlookers—or are these events your characters would visit willingly? A celebrity’s influence can also cause such events to show up suddenly. Imagine a team of crackshot thieves are prepared to hijack a vehicle full of money when it hits a planned route; how do they react when a celebrity suddenly passes, and now the route’s been changed to make way for the funeral procession?

  • A celebrity’s opinions can have great effect on their fans, for good or ill. Say your characters are trying to enact social change, such as a good ol’ fashioned revolt and overthrow of the fantastical government. What will they do if the local celebrity disapproves and the public turns against them? Or if the celebrity approves, and now the rebellion’s ranks swell with more new members than they know what to do with?

  • Connected to that last point: consider how fervently devoted some fans are for their celebrities. Simultaneously consider events like pilgrimages made to the home of Elvis Presley, or the artwork of Carrie Fisher as a Saint (may she protect us and remind us to take our meds, amen). What if there is a celebrity who garners as much belief as a god in your setting…and if there are actual gods in this setting, what are their opinions on the matter?

  • If nothing else, there’s always the celebrity as good old-fashioned metaphor. Is your protagonist’s favorite dancer a beacon of hope, believing that no matter how dark things get, life still goes on so long as the dancer keeps moving? Perhaps the dancer represents a rogue’s lost dreams of what they could’ve been in another life—and if the rogue then realizes they’re still just as dexterous and nimble due to their lifestyle, or that their time adventuring has made them just as famous? Now you’ve got some growth and character development.

I’m sure there are plenty of other uses for famous folks in your fiction, and this isn’t even touching upon them as characters in their own right. That’s part of a celebrity’s allure, I think; the fact that their fame can say so much about a world without them speaking a single word.

Now if you’ll excuse me dearests, I’m going to bury myself in David Bowie’s discography for the rest of the day. Maybe watch The Blues Brothers again so I can see Carrie Fisher wielding a rocket launcher. It’ll be a good day.

~Dorian

Favorite Reads of 2017

Congratulations, dearest readers: you all made it to 2018! If your year was anything like mine, it was a roller coaster that was done before you even finished strapping yourself in. While most of it was a parade of bizarre news and awful weather, the year did have its bright spots. For me, one of the best perks of 2017 was all the books!

A quick confession: I’d actually taken a bit of a break from hardcore reading the past few years. Not to say I stopped reading entirely—an author that doesn’t read is like a scientist who doesn’t research, after all—but I had a hard time sticking with books that didn’t instantly grab me (or, if we’re being honest, fanfiction). I kept telling myself I was too busy to commit to a book, or that I was sick of over-analyzing stories after college.

Then “Bones and Bourbon” was accepted by Ninestar Press (and releases in three months, that’s so soon I can’t believe it), and in order to better get to know fellow readers and authors in my community, I volunteered to be a judge for the Rainbow Awards. Plus, I resumed social media and met all sorts of other authors on Twitter and Goodreads, ended up at the San Diego Comic Con and found more books, and so on. To make up for all the time lost, I threw myself headlong into reading, and now?

Now, I’m going to share with you my top ten favorite reads of 2017! There’s no particular order to this list; just a collection of books I enjoyed this year, from mainstream to indie, genre or otherwise.

  1. The Animal Man Omnibus, as written by Grant Morrison

    This whopper of a comic collection was what kicked off 2017 for me, being my 2016 Xmas gift from my partner. For those who don’t know what’s so special about Grant Morrison’s take on Animal Man, I won’t spoil the fun, but if you’re a fan of deconstructing superheroes, underutilized characters, and comic book metanarratives, Animal Man is a treat. I especially recommend it to anyone who’s a fan of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics (especially since they’re technically in the same universe…)

  2. Can’t Hide From Me by Cordelia Kingsbridge

    The first book I read for the 2017 Rainbow Awards, and one of my favorites to boot. This thriller has the perfect balance of conflict and romance, as its secret agent protagonists try to avoid both a killer and the threat of falling back in love with each other. All the characters are entertaining and well-developed (and diverse to boot!), the action is on point, and the use of tension is masterful.

  3. Haunting Muses, anthology curated by Doreen Perrine

    Four words: Lesbian Ghost Story Anthology. The premise alone is exciting, but all the stories within were so good! The definition of ghosts ranged wildly, from literal apparitions (some of who were the titular lesbians, but not always) to memories, ancestors, or even the faint reminders of a long-lost relationship. There are funny stories and dark ones, romances and tales of terrors, and even the sweetest zombie love story I’ve ever read.

  4. Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire

    I’ve been meaning to read more Seanan books for awhile now, having only experienced her pseudonym Mira Grant (and some of her music, actually). Discount Armageddon was one of the most fun reads I had, where just the protagonist’s view on life is enough to lighten the narrative. I also loved how many less-common creatures were used (or invented, such as the cuckoos), and how the few familiar creatures we saw were given unique twists—and being the worldbuilding geek I am, I loved all the realistic biological details. Hail!

  5. Fire Sea by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

    The third book in the Death Gate Cycle, Fire Sea wasn’t a quick read, but definitely a worthwhile one. Each book takes place on a different world, and this one is a slowly dying planet whose inhabitants utilize necromancy and the strength of the dead in order to keep the living alive. The concept alone was fascinating, but add in two rival protagonists who must work together to survive, even with conflicting ideas on what should be done with the knowledge of necromancy in their inter-planetary war? Moral AND magical conundrums, a delicious combination.

  6. Sweet Blood by Dusk Peterson

    Sweet Blood is a special entry in this list, because while I didn’t like all of it, it gave me the most to think about out of all the books on this list. It’s the fifth book in a series, is technically five novellas strapped together into one book, and starts with a sadistic torturer punishing one of his own—but while it’s certainly not for everyone, there’s such wonderful craft past that opening! Inspired by historical prison reforms, this novel brings up important moral questions about redemption, sacrifice, how to balance tradition and revolution, and so much more. Even minor characters have intriguing developments, there’s worldbuilding even in minor details like the presence of hot cocoa in the dungeon, and that sadistic torturer I mentioned? He’s so multifaceted and developed that he became one of my favorite characters. Still trying to wrap my head around that one.

  7. The Ancient Magus Bride by Kore Yamazaki

    I jokingly call this my guilty pleasure manga, but I admit, I’m a sucker for anything with properly dark faeries and magic. Not only is this series well-researched in regards to British folklore and detailed with its unique brands of magic, but it’s a story of hope overcoming despair, be it saving endangered dragons or just learning new magics at home. Plus, who doesn’t want to smooch the powerful, naive eldritch wizard with a skull head?…Just me, huh?

  8. Hearts of Darkness by Andrea Speed

    Another book that, while not perfect, was flat-out fun to read. The protagonist is a master supervillain’s son who comes into his own as he doublecrosses other villains and heroes alike, with the help of overpowered gadgets and an adorable assassin sidekick. The evil plans don’t experience too many hiccups, but sometimes, it’s fun to just watch a protagonist be openly wicked as he crushes his competition throughout the city. Plus, one of the “good guys” that gets thwarted is basically Batman, which I found outright hilarious.

  9. Ardulum: First Don by J.S. Fields

    First off, bonus points for not only having prominent aliens in this sci-fi story, but having almost all of the POV characters be aliens. Especially when those aliens come from such vastly different worlds and backstories (and are all apparently inspired by different types of fungi to boot)! I also like that as the plot goes on, ripples and repercussions arise across the different POVs, especially across the radio transmissions heading many of the chapters. It’s such a cool technique to holistically tie all the storylines and settings together.

  10. Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites by Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson

    First off: that art. Just look at that art a long moment. Then go read the comic and see how much more of a gut-punch the plot is, its gorgeous art refusing to shy away from the visceral and terrifying. You would think that animals solving occult mysteries would be cute and quirky like a Scooby Doo knockoff? Read this comic and let your perceptions be ripped apart to shreds. Then give your pets a nice, long hug.

And now, as a bonus entry:

  1. Utter Fabrication: A Historical Account of Unusual Buildings, curated by Dawn Vogel and Jeremy Zimmerman

    Okay, this one’s cheating a little, because I have a short story in it, “The Orpheus Well.” Of course I’m going to like it. But even if you completely ignore my story, all the other entries are so good and diverse! From haunted spaceships to disappearing bike racks and fantastical hideaways, this anthology explodes with cool ideas and nifty words. Little touches like the transition markers and the extra artwork show what a labor of love this was; I’m honored that I got to be a part of it.

There’s the verdict, dearest readers. Now, onto all the books of 2018—including mine!

~Dorian

Laugh it Up

Like many others, I rushed to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi in theaters this past weekend. Now, I’m not going to spoil any plot points, but one spoiler-free element of the film surprised me: it had a sense of humor. That isn’t to say that Star Wars is a series without humor, but instead of dry humor and droid jokes, there are conversations that were genuinely funny, and a few moments where a combination of timing and unexpected reactions caused the whole theater to erupt in astonished laughter.

Thanks to Star Wars and other pieces of media I’ve seen recently (such as Thor: Ragnarok, finally playing through last year’s Ratchet and Clank game, and so on), I’ve been thinking about the use of humor in stories and genres that aren’t necessarily comedies. When you’re fighting bad guys in space in order to save your home from destruction (which actually describes all three examples above, coincidentally), why should humor be included amidst the action and drama? Actually, when used correctly, humor can actually be used to enhance the mood and tension of the narrative!

Humor can help strengthen the narrative in a number of ways. It can be used to highlight what your universe defines as normal; if your character can crack jokes about killer robots that look like crabs, the audience learns that either crab-bots are normal in this universe, or at least fitting in with the rules this universe has set up. Funny moments can help give characters (and the audience) a chance to breathe and collect their thoughts between action beats. It can also be used to betray expectations, such as Star Wars: The Last Jedi mentioned above, or in reverse where something seems to be funny but turns out to have a shocking consequence.

For an example on how this can work, I’m going to discuss an eccentric video game, Disgaea 4. It’s a comedic tactics game where a fallen-from-power vampire decides to overthrow a corrupt regime in order to fulfill the promises of fair treatment he made to his disenfranchised employees. Such a premise could make for a gritty, supernatural political thriller, but the humor is what makes the story—such as the vampire getting upset at a newspaper, not for running a smear campaign against him, but because of its atrocious spelling mistakes. Or the fact that he thinks sardines are a proper source of food for himself and payment for the series’ trademark exploding penguins.

We're serious about sardines here.

Just like any other vampire…?

Part of this humor comes from the reactions of other characters, such as the vampire’s resigned werewolf butler, which helps explain which aspects are normal (the exploding penguins) and which are uniquely the vampire’s eccentricities (his commitment to eating sardines instead of drinking blood). Tough attacks on a demonic overlord’s regime gets broken up by a teenage girl teaching her adopted younger sister/world-destroying weapon in-training, a breather moment that also serves as a subplot about humanity and sisterhood. And when the humor takes a backseat to penguin-exploding vampire revenge schemes, the risk of that being lost to our protagonist forever helps us realize the stakes in place.

My stories tend to face dark concepts, such as a demon collecting her first soul or a paranormal mercenary trying to save his brother from 20+ years of possession. Dark can be fun, but if a story stays dark for too long, it can become an emotional drag for readers. The demon child may be all-powerful, but she can still be confused why Earth canines are so much smaller than her hellhound Huckleberry. The possessed brother may occasionally try to take over the world, but sometimes the spirit possessing him just really wants dibs on his favorite breakfast pastries.

In the end, humor works much like a good story, wherein the punchline is the plot twist. The unexpected answer to the audience’s question catches them off-guard, be it revealing the identity of the protagonist’s lost parents or why the chicken crossed the road. Laughter and joy can be as memorable as any other emotional reaction to a plot twist—and in today’s world, couldn’t we use just a little bit more laughter?

~Dorian

Spice Up Some Worldbuilding

Just about every living thing, real and imaginary, relies on some form of consumption to survive. Most beings we write about require food and water to survive, and even characters who don’t—say, robots or beings with photosynthesis—will likely notice the food sources of those who do. It’s a point of reference that we as humans all share, and something we all think about when realizing we never actually got a dinner plan set up. Er, not that I’m speaking from personal experience here…

I didn’t used to think about food much, mostly because I was a picky eater, from a picky family with an even pickier sibling. I had my small staple of foods I would eat, and this didn’t really improve until college. (Well, once I learned how to cook and our cable was cut down to just the Food Network, if I’m being honest.) Part of the issue was that I never realized the limitless potential of food, from how the ingredients combined to realizing that spices and condiments can in fact improve a dish—yes, I ate everything plain, meaning it took me over fifteen years to try sauce on my pasta. I told you I was picky.

Not only have I come to appreciate food in real life, but I’ve started thinking about its place in fiction. At least 98% of characters need to eat after all, and what they choose to munch on says a lot about them, and also the world they live in. What foods are readily available and what’s in high demand? Do folks need a certain amount of wealth or status to eat certain foods, or are there reasons to avoid certain ingredients? How is the food hunted, harvested, or otherwise created, and then who actually prepares the food?

If your story is set in our world (past or present), the answer shouldn’t be too difficult, though you may need to research details outside your experience. Since Deadly Drinks is an urban fantasy series, I haven’t had to figure out much for Bones and Bourbon in terms of food—mostly figuring out what a lamia might eat, or what poorly-paid paranormals can afford. But while food isn’t as noticeable as alcohol in the series, it does come up in terms of where (and when!) characters are from. Left to their own devices in the kitchen, ancient evil spirit Nalem is going to gravitate toward different flavors than a Japanese/Brazilian furaribi, and both will be drastically different from the alchemy-laced Germanic meals that the Gallows brothers are used to their parents cooking.

(It also means that when I travel to a city for book research, I have a good excuse to try different restaurants to figure out where my characters might end up eating. See, writing has its perks!)

Science fiction rooted in our current technology can also have an element of research to it, though since the future is not definitive, it can still be played with. If your setting takes place on Earth (or a terraformed planet), how does technology help or hinder the growth of food? Details like what economic classes can afford “real” food, or watching rebel forces try to grow their own gardens inside an urban landscape, can help ground such a setting with efforts taking place in our own world. Meanwhile, space fiction has its own complications, such as how to keep food for long voyages, or discovering what’s edible on an alien planet.

The more fantastical you get, however, the more worldbuilding you have to do in order for everything to remain logical. Otherwise, you’ll just raise further questions: if you mention a character is drinking blue milk on a desert planet, readers are going to wonder where this milk came from and why it’s blue. Same goes for other aspects of your setting: a large army on the move needs some sort of food, a walled-in city either needs farmers within its borders or some way to import supplies, and that super cool fortress hidden in a volcano still needs to get water if the king of darkness doesn’t want his servants dying of dehydration.

One of the fun settings I have in the works is King’s Oak, a fantasy setting where an entire city-state nation is built into a giant tree, which is planted where four powerful leylines meet, causing it to be split between all four seasons at once and rotating them accordingly. The setup is fantastical, but I’ve put a lot of thought about the imports and exports of this city, including the food.

One can’t exactly set up swathes of farmland in the branches of a city, and there’s only a small sea for fish that’s shared with a neighboring country, so I decided most of the meat comes from birds or lizards, and insects are actually used as a common source of protein as well. As for plants, from fruit trees to wheat, I realized that they could be spliced onto King’s Oak itself, and thus almost every surface of this setting can be used to host plant life. Plus, with the seasons rotating along different parts of the tree, different quadrants can host unique plants, such as a wetter quadrant being host to what could be found in our rainforests. Because of all this, I can include both mundane and “exotic” ingredients in one place; who’s up for some grasshopper pancakes?

Hopefully, this post has given all of you some food for thought (pun fully intended) on what you read/watch and write in your own stories. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a dinner to plan.

~Dorian

In the Presence of Other Worlds

If there’s one writing technique I’m fond of, it’s imagining alternate universes. To consider how differently events would turn out if one key concept were changed, be it one small event (Bruce Wayne was shot instead of his parents, as per one comic series) or a larger idea (what if Hollywood, but in a fantasy setting?). And if I can ever get to Stephan King levels of fame and be able to publish a story and then publish a literal AU of that same story, believe you me, I will feel like a god. Expect maniacal laughter.

Now, you may wonder why I referred to this specifically as a writing technique. I do so because imagining AUs can be useful for a variety of purposes, be it developing characters or practicing new genres without flinging oneself completely into the unknown. Imagining an alternate universe can even lead to entirely new stories, such as how the Temeraire series and the Fifty Shades of Gray books were originally AU fanfics of Master and Servant and Twilight respectively. But how exactly can imagining AUs help?

Karmonis Lineart

Karmonis is also an occasional pincushion.

From a character perspective, I’ll use a fantasy character I’m developing as an example. Karmonis Mordai is a tiefling (i.e. looks like a satanic demon without actually being one) who was unfairly exiled from home, forced to become a ranger for hire in his travels. I ended up playing him in two different games, so one version of him found a small band of adventurers to travel with on a quest, while the other settled into a city and is now fighting to protect a larger populace of people in his new home. One setting helps me develop his faith and small-scale interactions, and another puts him in a position of power as a rebel force and weighing his impulses against the needs of his people. Developing him across two worlds with one key difference—did Karmonis overcome his guilt and allow himself to find a home—has helped me develop his character immensely.

For AUs as a method of trying different genres, I’m going to consider fanfiction for a moment. Fanfiction is where I first started writing, and instead of rehashing the familiar, I took to writing AUs as a way to contribute something new. One of my first forays into original fiction was to take the mechanical trappings of my favorite fandom (a popular video game series I will not name, out of sheer embarrassment) and put them into a gritty dystopia. The characters and world were new, but with the same basic rules in place, I still had fellow fans who were interested in reading and providing me feedback. A later example was taking the characters from an urban fantasy tale and putting them in a more high-fantasy setting, allowing me to practice the trappings of fantasy rules through a familiar modern lens and characters I already knew how to write.

In these cases, both techniques can be applied to our own original fiction. Have a character you’re having difficulties figuring out? Imagine them in a fresh setting, how they would react with a different role in the story, or even if a key aspect of their identity was shifted. Interested in a different genre? Take characters you’re familiar with and write them in such a setting, so you can focus on what’s new instead of having to build it all from the ground up. Don’t have time to write it all down? Even just daydreaming can help get the creative juices flowing.

(I myself have a tendency to put my characters in different games, be it a dice-rolling tabletop game or a video game. They can lead you surprising places—imagine my terror when I realized that a character of mine would totally side for the main antagonist of Fallout 4 because of the importance he places on family.)

Amusingly enough, most of my upcoming novel “Bones and Bourbon” can be attributed to me imagining AUs in one way or another. Retz and Jarrod Gallows were originally characters in a webcomic I was writing, but they kept stealing the spotlight from the main characters, so I considered giving them their own story. Around this same time, a friend sat me down to watch Supernatural for the first time, so I started to imagine what the Gallows brothers would do if they were in the Winchester brothers’ shoes. (And yes, those early drafts of the series did read a lot like a Supernatural fanfic, and thus are horribly cursed.)

Other characters joined the cast as they were given the AU treatment; what if this manipulative vampire was instead a lamia, and what if this girl and her monster friend from a Monsters and Other Childish Things game were monstrous siblings and on the run in a setting where they weren’t the only paranormal beings running amok? Even antagonist Nalem started as a benevolent god in an earlier story of mine, stripped of the mundane upbringing that had taught him kindness in his original series as he was tossed into Retz’s head for “Bones and Bourbon.”

Feel free to change things up, even just for sake of daydreaming. And if the changes you make actually stick? Don’t be afraid to run with them. The multiverse is the limit, dearests.

~Dorian