All in the Family

First off, a near-last minute announcement: I will be attending BayCon in San Mateo this Memorial Day weekend! If you’re anywhere in the Bay Area during that time, feel free to stop by my table to say hi and get your copy of Bones and Bourbon signed! (And if you don’t already have a copy, don’t worry—I’m bringing plenty to sell~)

Before I busy myself with travel preparations though, it’s time I return to form around here and resume ranting about storytelling and worldbuilding! Considering that it was Mother’s Day last Sunday, I’d like to dwell to a favorite topic of mine: families. Specifically, how to NOT kill off your protagonist(s)’s families and leave them all to be sad little orphans.

By now, we all know the main appeal of making characters orphans. It removes an authority that would normally look out for them, so young characters can get into dangerous adventures and schemes without worrying about what their parents will think. Introducing a family and then killing them off establishes a call to action, signifying that our heroes can never fully return home. As a bonus, it means less characters to juggle, and we won’t be asked by our relatives if they’re the real-life counterparts to these fictional family members.

Except now it’s so common, it’s almost a joke. Doubly so if it’s a fantasy story, young adult characters are involved, or the protagonist is from an idyllic village. If the parents aren’t already ~mysteriously absent~ in the beginning, expect for either their tragic death to be the catalyst for the plot, or for the protagonist to chase after any clue that hints at where they’ve gone.

But what if…we don’t kill off the parents (or the adopted mentors/guardians who stand in for them)?

In Bones and Bourbon, I not only keep Retz and Jarrod’s parents alive (or at least conscious and not entirely dead), but our antagonist Nalem’s family also plays into the plot. In most of my other planned stories, I’ve also plotted to keep as many protagonist parents alive as possible. What started as a challenge in avoiding sad orphan characters has become an exercise in the different ways mothers and fathers (and other non-gendered parental figures) can influence a character’s story.

Parents can add a slew of exciting complications for our characters. They can bring years of experience that the protagonists lack, though conflict may arise if this experience clashes with what the protagonists discover (such as in Danny Phantom, where the titular character has to hide his ghostly powers from ghost-hunting parents). How they treat their children can reveal backstory without necessitating a break in the narrative for a flashback. They may have their own struggles that can factor nicely into a subplot; if your chosen one is still alive and trying to be a hero, what if we also see their parents trying to survive or stand tall against the encroaching threats? And this isn’t even going into parents who actively work against protagonists, or other such possible drama.

Plus, from a worldbuilding perspective, allowing parents to live in your unique speculative land also gives you room to examine how families exist in your setting. Does a household contain only immediate family such as children and parents, or does it include extended relatives as well? Who raises the children, and how do they interact when the child becomes an adult? How many parents even are there, in settings with normalized polyamory and/or additional genders?

This isn’t to say that every parental character has to occupy a major role. In Bones and Bourbon, Erika Gallows only features in a few phonecalls and flashbacks in her sons’ story, but her presence still shapes not only how they grew up, but ups the stakes for her sons. If they don’t survive to reunite with their mother, it’ll break her heart…or, since she’s a huldra, she’ll go on a vengeful rampage. Even that small influence has a huge impact on the story, to say nothing of the chaos of facing one’s father or realizing the wicked immortal’s parents have had an equally long time to look after him and scheme.

A number of novels I’ve read recently have utilized parents to wonderful effect in their plots. An Accident of Stars by Foz Meadows includes multiple parents in its cast, including a family with three generations of matriarchs who help each other and ruin each others’ schemes in equal measure. Uprooted by Naomi Novak has a young woman whisked away from her family to assist a wizard—but it is her connection to her parents and hometown that allows her to grasp the implications of all the sorcery and conflicts around her. The various protagonists of Seanan McGuire’s InCryptid series have their parents and their grandparents to contact for advice when their supernatural research and adventures goes pear-shaped—and those family members even get their own spin-off stories!

This isn’t to say that there are no stories for orphans, for characters who grow up with no one but themselves or the families they make for themselves. However, there are ways for heroes to be born despite—or even because of—having parents survive to rear them. It’s like the difference between Batman and Superman; one fights to avenge the parents he lost, and the other, to make his surviving parents proud. I’ve seen plenty of Batmen in my fiction; I’m yearning to find a few more stories starring Supermen.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a trip to pack for. And when I’m done? I’m going to call my mother to make sure I didn’t forget anything.

~Dorian

From the Secret Diaries of Evil…

It’s almost here!

“Bones and Bourbon” releases this coming Monday…except for those who pre-ordered the ebook through NineStar Press, who can download their copies tomorrow. For everyone else, Amazon currently has print and ebook copies ready to preorder, as does Barnes & Noble, and ebooks can also be acquired through Kobo and Smashwords. I’ll update you here as more options, such as Barnes & Noble, become available.

As expected, I’m both excited and low-key freaking out. It’s a good kind of freakout, but still. This is actually happening. I can’t thank you all enough for helping this happen, because even your presence alone has been an invaluable support to me.

Now let me tell you about last Saturday, when I participated in an Author Takeover on Facebook for NineStar Press authors. There were a lot of entertaining presentations and conversations, and for my part, I shared some artwork and information for the creatures set to appear in “Bones and Bourbon,” complete with some commentary from my antagonist Nalem’s secret notebook. However, I recognize that not everyone has a Facebook page, or wants to scroll through all the discussions to find my posts, which is why I’ve decided to re-post them all here! Without further ado…


ATN Retz

Retz, with Nalem as a laughing skull.

“There are those who call me an evil necromancer. Regardless of their morality, they are wrong, if only because I do not RAISE THE DEAD, just their bones. What use have I for flesh? It is weak, fallible, and…smelly. Eugh. I also refuse to be called a lich, a witch, sorcerer, or any other inane titles. I am but a self-made god.” —Nalem

Fantasy is rife with the undead and those who raise them. Flip through any generic fantasy tale, be it a Tolkien rip-off or a modern horror tale, and you’ll find necromancers and zombie hordes galore. Sometimes, there are also just skeletons running around, with no flesh and no cares in the world, and they’re goofy to watch.

At least, it is until Retz and Nalem get involved.

Nalem was created by taking many of my favorite antagonist tropes—formless spirit that can possess people, “raising” the dead, a penchant for snark and inflicting horrific bodily harm—mashing them together into one evil bastard, and then sticking said bastard into a protagonist’s head. I also decided that instead of raising zombies, he would only have powers over their bones, either animating them as their skeletons were or completely warping them to suit his whims. Swords out of ribs? Check. Fusing your enemy’s teeth together? Also check. The result is a “hero” with decidedly un-heroic powers, and a deep connection between a man and the world’s greatest evil…who also happens to be his worst enemy, mentor, and confidante all rolled into one arrogant package.

ATN Huldra

Jarrod (left), Retz from the back (upper right), and their parents (lower right)

“I have never been a fan of huldras. They have always flaunted their emptiness, as if that makes them immune to my powers. They also keep claiming I’m “wicked” and “beyond redemption,” as if I care about their opinions. However, I suppose I should thank them for their foolish ways; they have inadvertently created the perfect vessel, with which I may finally complete my plans…
…If that troublesome brother of his doesn’t decide to “rescue him” first.” —Nalem

Traditionally, huldras are creatures in Norse and Scandinavian lore, though there have been mentions of them in other cultures. They are known for their ethereal beauty, complicated by a cow tail (or a fox tail, in certain variations) and a gaping hole across their back that reveals their bodies to be hollow inside. They are known to assist those who are polite, but those who cross them are reminded of their strength when the huldra straightens an iron horseshoe with their bare hands…or just uses their immense strength to batter the offender senseless.

In “Bones and Bourbon,” our sibling protagonists have a huldra mother who fits the lore, but since the Gallows brothers are also half human, they are known as hulderkind. Jarrod inherited his mother’s incredible strength—and a cow tail—but Retz’s biology is far stranger. He has the hole in his back and his hollow inside, save that unlike a traditional huldra, he still has a human skeleton. This led to him being the perfect vessel for Nalem, whose powers can warp Retz’s bones to suit his whims without worrying about puncturing any vital organs.

I also gave the huldras sped-up healing, so the Gallows brothers don’t have to visit a hospital after every fight. Plus, it seems huldras have developed an instinct for judging whether someone is good or evil…and while Retz’s morals are warped by his necromantic mental roommate, Jarrod’s instincts are clearer than he’d care to admit.

ATN Furaribi

Isamu (left) and Aimi (right), Furaribi siblings

“Fools more superstitious than I would consider spotting a furaribi to be an ill omen, much less two of them so far from home. I, of course, will not be waylaid by such opinions; all I have to do is track these creatures without my vessel betraying me, and I will be one step closer to the fruition of my plans.
…And yet, I swear that girl is familiar. Have I somehow encountered her and forgotten? Or does her boundless optimism and love of scathing pop music simply remind me of my vessel?” —Nalem

Furaribi aren’t particularly common as far as yokai (spirits and other creatures from Japan) go. They’re said to take the form of fiery birds with dog-like faces as they float along riverbanks. They supposedly form from lost souls unable to pass on to the next life, and while most are content to float in peace, some can be goaded into a vengeful fury if reminded of their past lives…

Since not much is known about furaribi, I’ve given them a couple twists for “Bones and Bourbon.” For one, I made them more humanoid, though their talons and fiery wings are still reminiscent of birds. I also gave them the ability to disguise themselves in a human form, so they may travel past their riverbanks to mingle with mortal society. Their origins are unclear in this story; their only concern is escaping their wicked lamia captors. However, it may be significant that Aimi is the first furaribi to be born outside of Japan, and a few key powers seem interested in her…

ATN Lamia

Lady Delight

“A letter from Lady Delight arrived today. Of course the damnable snake refused to state what she needed help with—she has to lure me over first before she can bribe me, after all. Or betray me, seeing how she loves to mimic my own tactics.
I should burn the letter and send back the ashes as my reply. Then again, if the rumors are true, she may finally have the connections I need to make her useful. I may as well investigate the veracity of these claims…but first, I’ll have to find a goat.” —Nalem

The lamia seen in “Bones and Bourbon” are a composite of multiple snake-women hybrids found in mythology. The most notable is Lamia, a lover of Zeus who was cursed by Hera into a monstrous form often described as serpentine; most art depicts her with the upper half of a woman and the lower half of a snake, similar to Gorgons who also feature in Greek Mythology. However, the lamia in “Bones and Bourbon” also have a completely nonhuman form, where they resemble giant snakes such as the Hindu Naga…except they also grow multiple heads as they age, reminiscent the multi-headed Hydra. Plus, their fangs contain deadly poison, just like…actual venomous snakes!

Lamia are also known to live for centuries, which gives them time to indulge in their common hobby as collectors. Unfortunately for the Gallows brothers, the lamia they have to face is Lady Delight, owner of a fantastical menagerie of monsters. Sentient, rare monsters she’s planning on selling at an otherworldly fair. And the highlights of her collection, a pair of furaribi, have just escaped her lair…

ATN Unicorns

Two rude, bloody unicorns

“I hate when unicorn heads escape and bleed all over my notebook. I still neither know nor care why it was following me, but Lady Delight should appreciate the gift. For now, I think I’ll leave it in the passenger seat; I want to see how my vessel reacts when he wakes up.” —Nalem

Ah, unicorns. Pure champions of love, light, justice and…wait, is that blood?

Yes, unicorns are one of the few common creatures you’ll see in “Bones and Bourbon,” but these aren’t the mild-mannered sweethearts you find statues of at the kitschy fantasy stores. These unicorns are warriors, carnivores who purify the blood spilling from their kills. As long as a unicorn’s horn is intact, they cannot be stopped, even as a disembodied head. For reasons unknown, they also seem to have a vendetta against Retz, even though he doesn’t actually have any blood in him to purify. Perhaps they just don’t like him and his decrepit car?

ATN Alexander

Alexander Gallows as a Fae

Good news: Alexander Gallows is dead!
Bad news: I wasn’t the one to kill him.
Worst news: Whoever DID kill him botched the job, and now he’s an undead Faerie, complete with powers he really didn’t need. I should have murdered him myself while I had the chance!” —Nalem

The word Faerie brings a variety of beings to mind. Some think of Tinkerbell and other diminutive beings with glittery wings, flowery homes, and pint-sized attitude. Others imagine grand courts full of magic and deceit. And then there are those who imagine the “kindly ones” waiting just off the path, luring travelers to follow them to the lands of the dead or other strange worlds…

All these and more count as Fae in “Bones and Bourbon,” though the most commonly seen are the latter. A world known as Arcadia waits just past our world, twisting the familiar into visages where chrome trees leak oil and castles of fire and light await on brimstone clouds. Those who die in Arcadia find they do not stay dead, but fuse with the environment to become bizarre creatures. Such a fate has befallen Alexander Gallows, father to our protagonists…though in his case, his transformation may not entirely be a curse.

ATN Farris

Farris O’Reilly

I love when mortals bring me toys to break. Jarrod, you make it all to easy to ruin your day. Wait, he’s able to see the supernatural AND has no memory to speak of? Could I be so lucky? It seems that Fate has decided to smile upon me after all…!” —Nalem

Of course there are humans in “Bones and Bourbon,” even if they don’t make up much of the cast because…well, almost every story has humans, but how many have snake-ladies and carnivorous unicorns? But I may as well mention how humans play into this supernatural mess, if only so I can showcase a picture of the novel’s main human, Farris.

Most humans can’t see the supernatural. Well, they can, they just…can’t comprehend the supernatural for long, so their memories warp so that events make sense to them. They’re quite skilled at accidentally ruining paranormal plans without realizing it, particularly because a mysterious being known as “The Harvester” seems to be protecting them from supernatural backlash.

Once in a while, for a myriad of reasons, a human comes along that can see man and monster both, often becoming mediators between them. One of these was Alexander Gallows, father to our protagonists Retz and Jarrod. Another is Farris, daredevil amnesiac and Jarrod’s devoted boyfriend. Where did he come from, how does he know how to use a sword, and what makes him think trying to rodeo a unicorn’s in any way a good idea?

Oh dear, Nalem found me with his notebook. I was going to tell you all about two mysterious beings, The Harvester and Bloody Mary, but Nalem just…ripped the corresponding page out of his notebook, tore it up, and ate the pieces. Guess you’ll have to read “Bones and Bourbon” to find out what that’s about, now won’t you?

Hope you’re ready for the 23rd, dear readers.

~Dorian

A Recipe for Deadly Drinks

So this is what daylight looks outside of the dreaded Editing Mines! It’s a different kind of bright from a computer screen, isn’t it? Unlike the east coast, we’re getting some sun in between the bouts of rain, so it actually feels like spring, as April should.

Speaking of April, know what releases in less than three weeks? That’s right, “Bones and Bourbon” releases April 23rd, available in both print and ebook formats wherever books can be acquired online (and, if all works out, at certain bookstores and conventions)! Right now, we’re busy with copyediting, finalizing the cover art (it is GORGEOUS and I cannot wait to share it with you), and preparing to promote the book with everything from events like the Author Facebook Takeover to some top-secret projects.

It’s been a long, strange journey to get “Bones and Bourbon” to where it is now. Ever wonder how a novel comes to be? Here’s the story on how this one happened.

The journey started one Xmas morning when I was still in high school. Though I had been writing fanfiction for years at that point (some stories with enough “fan characters” and alternate settings that they were almost completely original works), it had never occurred to me to become an author; my goal was actually to write for video games, inspired by JRPGs such as Final Fantasy X and Chrono Cross. Then I opened one particular book: the writer’s digest Plot and Structure by J. Scott Campbell.

I had a revelation: instead of being beholden to the constraints of graphics and commercial deadlines in video games, I could just write the stories on my own! I could be an author! I read this book on writing as if it were the holy grail of inspiration, and as soon as I shut the cover, I closed my eyes to brainstorm a novel (as if it were so easy). What popped into my head was a man standing aloft on a ship made entirely of bones as it bore him over a churning ocean in a storm. I decided the man’s name was Retz Gallows.

He was not the protagonist.

Originally, Retz was a straight-up necromancer who used his powers to keep his deceased girlfriend alive, and was the call to action for a mild-mannered metal-bender named Samson. That story wasn’t developed enough to last beyond the first chapter, and I soon moved on to an X-Man-esque story called “Arcanum,” where certain individuals developed superpowers as a reaction to traumatic incidents. This was where Retz’s powers shifted into controlling just bones instead of the undead in general, though he was also a cowardly romantic, as much comic relief as he was a friendly rival to the protagonist. I kept adding characters into the story as I designed it; my plan was to make a long webcomic with a diverse ensemble cast, with Retz just being one cog in a complicated machine.

Cue a friend telling me about a tabletop game known as Changeling: the Lost and asking me to make a character for it. Without knowing much about the setting, I created Jarrod, a gun-wielding, hard-drinking investigator trying to clear the name of his disgraced father. When I drew him, he looked vaguely like Retz—more a testament to my art style at the time than anything—but I decided that they could be brothers. Jarrod joined the “Arcanum” cast and became the serious, non-supernatural counterpoint to Retz. As I built the plot, I decided he was a spy against his will for one antagonist, due to cursed roses planted in his skin—and if he didn’t comply, he’d turn into a plant completely, a fate his father had already suffered.

They were still not the protagonists. With how much screentime they stole in the story before they were even introduced, however, they might as well have been the stars. Individually, they each had more artwork than even the protagonist of the series! So instead of burying them in a giant ensemble cast, I decided to give them their own story to run amok in. I wrote about them in my college writing workshops and played them in tabletop RPG campaigns, which led to me spending my school breaks trying to write the first books in the “Deadly Drinks” series. Which were…only around 50k words each, the same length as a NaNoWriMo entry, and read more like bizarre episodes of Supernatural with the serial codes filed off. Eww.

Even though these early attempts will never see the light of day, they did serve the purpose of sharpening my skills and helping me figure out what I wanted “Deadly Drinks” to be about. I brainstormed a new start to the Gallows brothers’s adventures, pulling in concepts from my college classes and characters I hadn’t used in years. Giving Jarrod a steady romantic relationship from the start was inspired by my medieval romance professor’s comment on the rarity of such things in romances, though it took time before I settled on Farris, who was a surprisingly popular non-player character I’d made for a Changeling: the Lost game I’d run. Nalem was originally a god I’d created for a fantasy series in high school, and making him share Retz’s body stemmed from wanting to explore a deeper connection between protagonist and antagonist that I hadn’t seen much in fiction. Orphaned heroes too common? I made sure the Gallows brothers had BOTH parents alive…or at least undead and sentient enough to influence their lives.

Along came November 6th of 2012, a date I can only concretely recall because it was also the night Barack Obama was re-elected for a second term. During my science fiction analysis class in college, I was struck by a flash of inspiration, and a scene in the back of my mind’s eye: Retz and Jarrod fighting a multi-headed snake, leaping across gilded cages suspended from chains in a castle as they tried not to be devoured. There were creatures in these cages, including two fire spirits that the brothers had to rescue. I had to know why.

I could not tell you what that day’s class was about; I instead wrote the entire initial outline of what is now “Bones and Bourbon” in that class period. I fleshed out the opening chapters, one for each brother, during my writing workshops over the next few terms, while I wrote the novel in whatever spare time I had. I had to rewrite it as I went and the story continued to change, particularly as I realized that the brothers weren’t entirely human—instead being half huldra, which explained how they could survive in their dangerous urban fantasy world—and that Jarrod was transgender like some of my close friends. I wrangled the story together, finished the first draft on a friend’s couch at the start of my senior year of college, and immediately wrangled a few of my constant classmates to beta-read for me so I could prepare draft two.

Flash forward to last year. “Bones and Bourbon” was polished enough to send to agents and publishing presses, with the first draft of its sequel finished and the third book in the series underway. No surprise, it garnered a few rejections at first—I even rewrote most of Retz’s introduction to make it more engaging, since most submission requirements only reached partway through his first chapter. Between querying agents and participating in Twitter pitchfests, all I’d hoped for was a bite of interest. #SFFPit rolled around in June, and after crafting a slew of pitches (a different one for each hour, some of them crafted on the spot during breaks at work), I sent off this tweet:

 

It wasn’t the most popular or exciting of the pitches…but it did garner the attention of NineStar Press. I ran to my computer after work to research this publishing press. Deciding it sounded like a legitimate press that would respect my work and wasn’t in danger of folding, I submitted my manuscript—almost five years old if its ‘birth’ was the creation of its outline—and kept writing while I waited. The website FAQ told me to expect a 12 week response time. I heard back in 2—and it was a resounding YES.

Now, here we are. Less than three weeks until release date, when this story that was once scribbled on in-class notebook paper is unleashed upon the world, and those boys I imagined on a whim will finally get to share their adventures with all of you.

Dear readers, I hope you’re as excited as I am.

~Dorian

To First Drafts and Beyond!

First, a victory announcement: I just finished the first draft of my novella for NineStar Press’ “Lost” collection! It has polyamorous alien space pirates versus mad scientists and totally-not-dinosaurs! During at least the last five thousand words of the book, I listened to nothing but Meat Loaf’s discography, and everything is glorious!

The novella also ended up clocking in at almost 35,000 words; the collection requires between 30k and 120k, but I erred on the shorter side so I’ll have plenty of time to edit before the April 30th deadline. This was a new challenge for me, since I usually either write novels that are over a hundred thousand words, or short stories that tend to be under ten thousand. Thus, today I’m going to discuss the process of creating this novella, and how it differed from my usual methods (and what tended to be par for the course.)

First, I had to settle on an idea and an overarching plot in the first place. Other than the length, the only requirements were that characters were somehow lost, and that LGBTQIA+ romance be incorporated into the story. As I mentioned in the Valentine’s blog post, I’m not as inclined toward writing romance outside of pre-established relationships, so I bounced around a couple different ideas; a superhero and supervillain who get lost together and team up to escape while falling for each other, a demon trying to help a failed cultist after a ritual goes wrong, etc. But the idea I kept coming back to was an old sci-fi staple; getting lost on an alien planet. I already had a story in mind for a space fantasy setting, but with a long plot and an entire spaceship crew’s worth of characters, I figured it’d be too bloated to cram into a novella.

What I COULD do, however, was write a prequel in the same universe. And I already had a relationship set up to explore; one protagonist’s parents, a polyamourous quartet of space sirens (the Psyrens discussed over here) who were feared and revered pirates before being scattered across the galaxy. Of course I could have these pirates crash onto a bizarre alien planet, and what could be more romantic than four alien pirates who are all in love with each other? I busied myself with plans for what alien planets would be most interesting for these pirates to get lost in—and how to make sure my plots didn’t replicate pre-existing Star Trek episodes (thanks Mom!)

Next came the outline, a process I rigidly cling to even though I always deviate from the outline halfway through like a swiftly-derailing train. I’d already settled on having two protagonists, separating the pirates so they had to find each other and a way to escape, so I had to create two storylines that would meet at the beginning and end, and figure out how to have them mirror each other. It sounds like a complicated juggling act, but thankfully writing the “Deadly Drinks” series, which alternates between the Gallows brothers’ POVs, prepared me for doing it on a smaller scale. The main difference between outlining the two was that I didn’t mark when I would switch protagonists; I rigidly stick to chapter length and alternating in “Deadly Drinks,” but I elected to be looser about scene length and when POV switches happen in this piece.

Then comes perhaps the most necessary part of my process: writing and deleting a series of false starts. I’m not the sort who can actually write scenes out of order, and it often takes me a bit to set my train of plot on the outline track, so to speak. For this novella, the false starts led to an entirely new outline; where I’d originally planned to touch on the quartet early in their pirate days, I decided to go earlier and strengthen the romance aspect by having the story be about how three of the pirates find the fourth member of their spacefaring quartet. All I had to do was answer all the questions this brought up—why wasn’t their fourth member on their alien homeworld, how do the pirates reunite, how can they escape afterwards—and the plot practically wrote itself from there.

I had also originally planned to maroon my dear pirates on a frozen planet with a blood red sun (requiring characters to snuggle for warmth, which is the height of romance in the elements, right?) and hidden underground tunnels where most of the fauna actually survived to avoid all the snow. But between images of classic sci-fi art and a few hours of wandering through “No Man’s Sky,” I decided I wanted to explore the terrors of an alien jungle instead. I decided to keep the expansive network of underground tunnels, but what would the tunnel-dwellers be hiding from? Giant, hungry megafauna, of course. (Perhaps I’ve been playing too much Magic the Gathering, with the recent cards involving Pirates versus Dinosaurs…) And then what if there was intelligent life hiding in those tunnels, unnoticed by spacefarers overhead because the signals were blocked by being underground? That means a chance to introduce *more weird aliens!*

See, that’s perhaps the most important part of writing: there has to be something enjoyable about it. We authors joke about how much writing and editing equals suffering, but if you don’t enjoy the story or its purpose, then what’s the point? Even if they don’t all make it into the final draft, I always make sure I have a few key concepts or scenes in my stories that I want to explore, like a cool fight or examining the details of a magic system. Or, in this case, designing weird aliens who are relatable and “human”, even if they grow mouths instead of scar tissue and can control others with their singing. Yes folks, Psyrens are bizarre, even when they aren’t pirates.

While I had challenges writing my first novella, figuring out issues like pacing and how much information to include or discard, it was also a lot of fun. More room than a short story to add plots, sub-plots, and extra character development, but without the time investment needed for a full novel. Plus, I’m literally writing a classic sci-fi adventure and all the ridiculous twists that entails, but with polyamorous alien pirates. What’s not to love?

I’m taking a few days off from it to celebrate its completion (returning to a for-fun project instead to keep my writing chops up), and then I’ll go back into editing with a clear head. Should all go well, it’ll be ready by the April 30th deadline, and will hopefully release with the rest of the “Lost” collection. We’ll see soon enough~

~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

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