Which Details Matter?

World building is typically something we think is the concern of sci-fi and fantasy writers. If you’re going to tell a story set in a world that is either not ours or significantly different from it, you need to define those differences. But the truth is that all writers should be concerned with world building. Writers of all kinds of fiction need to flesh out the world in which their characters exist. Even if it’s the real world, it’s likely a part of it that the reader isn’t familiar with. Even non-fiction writers need to do the same – to build a place for their story to take place in order for it to make sense.

Of course, not everything about the world you’re working in is important for a reader to know. Finding the right level of detail can be hard, since you might send signals to readers that you never intend and actually mess up the world building you’re trying to do.

If you’ve read Gods of the Empire you know that Lady Belwyn has a music room. In an early draft I mentioned in one scene, as Hagan entered the room, that she was playing a “Colebeck etude.” I could have just said “etude” or even just named the instrument she was playing, but I thought throwing a composer’s name in would make it feel more like something from a lived-in world. Plus, it let me give a shoutout to the progressive rock world and name check Julian Colebeck, longtime keyboard player with Steve Hackett. To my knowledge, he’s never written an etude.

“But wait,” you’re saying. “I’ve read Gods of the Empire and I don’t remember anything about Colebeck in it.” You’re right, because I wound up taking it out. To a person, everyone in my writers group seized on the fact that there was a new name thrown at them when they read that scene. They wondered if this Colebeck person was important to the story. Would he come up again? Is this something important to remember for later down the road? Since the answer to all of those questions was “no,” I just decided to take it out. It’s at the point of the book where readers are still finding their feet on Oiwa and in the Unari Empire, so it was more important to remove a distraction.

My mistake, I think, was in introducing a variable that’s completely unknown without definition. If I was writing something in the real world – say, a sequel to Moore Hollow – and I had a similar character, I might have her playing a piece by Mozart or Liszt or Stravinsky. That would provide a nice little detail, but only because those names aren’t variables – they’re real composers who exist in this world. So long as the name is familiar enough for a reader to nod at it, that’s all you need. If you know those three names you can figure out what it’s saying about the character that she plays Stravinsky instead of Mozart.

But sometimes you need a reference to be just as fictional as your characters, even if your story takes place in the real world. In my opinion, it’s more distracting to try and avoid this than it is to take a sentence or two and define your fictional reference. This jumped out at me listening to The Getaway, an Audible Original by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen.

Giveaway

It’s about a woman, a press secretary in the wake of a losing campaign, who goes on a yoga retreat where bad things happen. She does so partly because of how this retreat was praised by an unnamed actress she follows on social media.

The first time this person came up the main character just called her “an actress she follows,” which I thought was weird. It’s important enough to mention that this influencer’s praise was part of the reason to go on the retreat, but she doesn’t have a name? All right, it’s a throw away. But the second time it came up it really annoyed me. And the third. And the fourth. This really does seem to be an important detail – nay, it’s critical to the fairly dubious setup! (needless to say I’m not recommending The Getaway) – yet the story doesn’t define it. It could be as simple as a name and that she’s the star of some TV series or movie. No need for more than that, but just something to suggest that this actress is a real person in this world.

As always, it’s a question of balance and where to draw the line. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to building your world, except maybe one: Does this detail serve the story? Does it deepen the reader’s understanding of the world or the characters? Okay, so that’s two questions, but you get the point.

Details

I Won! I Won!

Hey, everybody. How was November? Everybody awakened from their turkey coma?

As I said earlier, I spent last month taking part in National Novel Writing Month, working on the sequel to my first novel, Moore Hollow. I’m pleased to say it was a very productive month:

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Of course, in this case “winner” means “reach the 50,000-word threshold,” not have a complete manuscript in a month. Still, I made a very good start and should finish up this first draft in the next few weeks. More importantly, this book now has a title! The second installment of what I’m going to call the Appalachian Paranormal series is The Triplets of Tennerton. I’m super excited to share it with you (in a while).

All in all, 2019 will have been a pretty productive writing year for me. I finished and published Gods of the Empire, first of my new Unari Empire trilogy. I also wrote a first draft of its sequel, Widows of the Empire. Now I’m about to wrap up a first draft of The Triplets of Tennerton. Not too shabby.

What of next year? My main focus will be on finishing Widows and writing the final book in that trilogy, Heroes of the Empire. Will Widows see the light of day in 2020? Too early to say, but it’s definitely a possibility. All I know is that I’m going to keep grinding at this thing called writing.

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Fantasy Doesn’t Have to Be “Accurate,” It Just Has to Be Compelling

A while back I wrote about how research can be important, and idea-provoking, when it comes to writing fantasy. The gut reaction might be that writing fantasy means you can just make everything up as you go along. It’s not that simple, but one of the joys of writing fantasy is the freedom it gives you to mold the world your story is set in to the needs of the story itself. That’s why questions like this bug me:

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That’s from one of the fantasy author Facebook groups I’m in. I chimed in asking for more information about what kind of time period we’re talking about, since the kind of rigorous border regulation we know today is a fairly recent invention. But more than that, I asked what the writer’s story needed? After all, it’s fantasy, so why be bound to mundane reality?

I think that when it comes to worrying about research in fantasy it comes in two flavors. One is research for inspiration – you’re not looking to see how things are or were done in order to have your characters do the same thing, but you’re trying to spark your own creativity. The most obvious case of this is reading history, which is full of bizarre and compelling story fuel that can be molded to fit just about whatever world your telling your story in.

An example of this is one I’ve mentioned before – the basic arc of The Water Road trilogy was inspired by reading about Napoleon’s 100 Days and thinking about how he was handled – exiled only to return – sounded like something that would happen to the bad guy in a fantasy series. What actually takes place in The Water Road is very different, but the bones of it are still there.

The other situation is the one where I think people get hung up sometimes, that is doing research about the right or correct or “accurate” way to do something. That’s a situation where you need to have a character do something or have something happen to the character and you want to make sure it feels right. That kind of research is good and necessary – you can’t really write fantasy without any research (including as “research” here knowledge you’ve already obtained) – but it’s important not to let the reality overwhelm the story.

As an example, the world of Gods of the Empire includes steam-powered autocars (of course it does, it’s steampunk!), but they’re mostly toys of the rich. So as part of his travels Aton gets to ride in one and I wanted to have a scene where he observed the startup of one of these things, to capture the kind of Rube Goldberg beasts that they are. I did some scrounging and found a very good video of someone going through the startup for an restored Stanley Steamer, originally built around 1911:

Cool, huh? It provided some great details that I was able to put into that part of the book, but I didn’t just take down what the guy did in the video and transport it to the book. Why? For one, while providing a glimpse of the startup routine is a nice way of deepening the world building it’s a grace note on the overall story, not a subplot – I didn’t want to divert for that long. For another, the character in my book wasn’t starting a Stanley Steamer, but rather a similar vehicle in a different world with differing technologies. In other words, I was only concerned about being accurate to my world, not the real world.

Research while writing fantasy is kind of like the old saw about knowing the rules of writing (or any artistic endeavor). It’s not important to know the rules to slavishly follow them, but it is important to know them so that when you break them you can think of why you’re breaking them and to what effect.

Say, for example, you want to have a two-feet-tall sprite in your story wield a long steel broadsword. Physics tell you that in the real world (assume a real world with sprites, people) that wouldn’t work – the sword is too big and too heavy for the sprite to pick up, much less wield. Does that mean it can’t happen because it would not be “accurate.” No! This is fantasy – anything can happen, if you want it to, but you need to figure out how, in your world, such a thing is possible. Maybe the sword is enchanted and can be wielded by anyone who is worthy? Maybe sprites are supernaturally for some cool reason in your world? It doesn’t matter, so long as you realize that some fanstaticking is going to have to happen.

Which, after all, is the point, right? One different between science fiction and fantasy is that fantasy is really only limited by your imagination. Sci-fi, at least in theory, is tethered to the realities of the real world, however much one can extrapolate from them. Fantasy not only lets you think outside the box, but blow up the box completely. It’s a great power to have, being able to mold the world to fit your story – why shouldn’t you use it every chance you get?

Wonka

Gods of the Empire Is Here!

Today’s the day! My latest novel, Gods of the Empire, first book of the Unari Empire Trilogy, is now available!

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For the next few days it will be available for just 99 cents at these fine purveyors of eBooks:

Kindle 

Barnes & Noble

Kobo

iBooks

It’s also available in paperback. In addition, I’ll have a couple of upcoming appearances where you can get a copy directly from me (signed, if you wish). Details tomorrow.

Gods of the Empire FAQ

As we get closer to the release of Gods of the Empire, I thought I’d take some time to answer some basic questions about it that might have popped into your heads.

Where did the idea for Gods of the Empire come from?

Oddly enough, the spark that led to Gods, and the rest of the Unari Empire Trilogy, is a character who doesn’t even make an appearance in this book (although he may show up in the next two). I had this idea of a character who was an exile who was growing increasingly tired of being sought out for his opinions on his former homeland. He fled the place then is put in the position of being its de facto defender.

That led to me thinking about what his homeland was like and what kind of world had grown up around it. The end product was a world with a single superpower, the Unari Empire, that has started to show signs of coming apart. The why of that was where the story for the entire trilogy began to take shape.

Where’s the center of the action for Gods of the Empire?

 A lot of the book takes place around the expanse of the Unari Empire and its client states, but the heart of the Empire itself, and the story, is the capital of Cye. It’s there that Emperor Chakat sits and where Lady Belwyn begins her story. It’s also Aton’s home town and a place he has some connection to.

If you’ve read any of The Water Road Trilogy, you may recognize that I named a lot of places after musicians. Cye continues that tradition, as the name comes from a obscure (even by progressive rock standards) band from Switzerland of that name. They released one album, called, appropriately enough, Tales.

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There’s even a little story in the liner notes about a character called Cye, but it doesn’t have anything to do with Gods of the Empire. I always liked the name, though, and finally found a way to put it to use.

Who are these “gods” you’re talking about?

There are gods on Oiwa, the world where this trilogy takes place. Or, at least, there were. Thousands of years before the events of the trilogy an alien race visited to the planet, setting up shop and staying for a while. Eventually they left, leaving behind various artifacts, as well as deposits of the powerful element bosonium. Why the gods left, and whether they might come back, is one of the major theological questions facing the various religions that have sprung up since their departure.

Who is Aton?

Aton Askins is one of the main characters of Gods of the Empire. Aton grew up in Cye and works as a “finder” – sort of like a private eye, but he specializes in finding things and people. He has a daughter, Kaisia, who was born the day of the blast and, as a result, is generally bed-ridden and sickly. Her mother, Mara, the love of Aton’s life, died in childbirth. All Aton wants to do in the world is care for his daughter, but his line of work makes that difficult. So when someone comes to him with a job that pays really well and would be only the first of many, he can see a settled future opening up for him and his daughter. But at what cost?

Who is Lady Belwyn?

Lady Belwyn is the other main character of Gods of the Empire. She was born in the Knurian lakeside retreat of Annanais, but came to Cye when she married Oudrick, Crown Prince to the throne of the Unari Empire. He was killed in the blast and she was seriously injured, leading to the amputation of the lower part of her right leg. As a result, she’s spent the years since the blast as a recluse, interacting with the public only when absolutely required. When the book starts she’s just starting to break out of that funk, driven to find out why the investigation into the blast hasn’t found out, after all these years, who the perpetrators were who murdered her husband.

What is “blast” everyone keeps talking about?

The blast is a shorthand way of talking about the Port Ambs bombing. Port Ambs is to the Unari Empire what 9/11 was to the United States. The town itself is a port built near Cye. Seven years prior to the events of the trilogy, the port was being opened by the Emperor Hoban III, with the Crown Prince and other in attendance, when a huge explosion ripped through crowd, killing and wounding dozens. The blast put Chakat on the throne and, in a very real sense, is where the story started.

Chakat? Who’s Chakat?

That’s Emperor Chakat to you, buddy! Chakat was the second son of Emperor Hoban III, younger brother of Crown Prince Oudrick (and, therefore, brother-in-law of Belwyn). Since he was the second born he was never raised to be prepared to become the emperor. As a result, he doesn’t really have the skills to run the Empire. Nor does he have the temperament, as he’s got a paranoid streak that expresses itself in dangerous ways. His reign has noted mainly for his repeated fruitless military excursions in pursuit of the Port Ambs bombers and his failure to identify an heir (or produce one the regular way).

That’s the  basics – to find out more you’ll have to buy the book!

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Gods of the Empire Excerpt

If you’ll recall, my new book, Gods of the Empire, comes out in a couple of weeks! To whet your appetite a bit, here’s an exclusive excerpt.

In this scene, Aton responds to a note that will change his life forever:

The Hotel Voisine traded in discretion. Aton could tell that from the exterior of the building, which had almost no ornamentation on it at all. It looked more like the anonymous Imperial buildings nearby rather than the other luxurious hotels. Unlike the Hotel Woodburn across the square, with its ostentatious arch and bizarre carved faces, the front door of the Voisine was simple and did not announce itself. On closer inspection, one would see the fine grain wood used in the doors and the gold plating on the fixtures. But the only real sign of exclusivity, of upper-class opulence, was the doorman.

He wore a uniform of deep green, with bright yellow trim and immaculately polished gold buttons. He was six inches taller than Aton, if not more, and weighed another fifty pounds, all of it seemingly concentrated in his arms. Aton showed him the envelope, but before he could try and talk his way in, the doorman opened the door and tipped his cap. “Welcome to the Voisine, sir.”

Inside, the reserved nature of the design was inverted. The entryway was five stories high, with great skylights in the roof that allowed the afternoon sun to fill the place with light. It looked like any other hotel lobby—there were a pair of couches and some large, comfortable chairs with end tables—only taken to the most luxurious extreme. Aton wanted to stop and just pet the nearest couch, to try and divine which rare animal had given its hide for the comfort of the Voisine’s guests. But the moment he slowed his walk, he felt the eyes of every one of the half-dozen people in the lobby on him. He didn’t make eye contact, but he didn’t have to.

A smiling older gentleman stood behind a pink marble counter at the end of the lobby. “May I help you, sir?” he asked as Aton approached.

Aton showed him the envelope, but didn’t pull out the note inside. “I was told to meet a Mr. Laffargue here? Didn’t say where, no room number—”

The man cut him off. “Of course, sir, Mr. Laffargue. He is expecting you in the meeting room on the second floor. Upstairs, then left, then through the double doors.”

Aton paused for a moment. Surely there had to be something more. He was a stranger to these people, a nobody from off the street. Yet he was being treated as an honored guest. Aton decided to go with it. “Thanks.”

He turned at the top of the stairs and found the double doors. He almost walked directly in, but thought better of it and decided to knock. Anybody who could afford to set up shop at the Voisine could afford a goon or two waiting inside to break the leg of any unwanted, or at least unanticipated, visitor. He knocked, then went inside when he heard a muffled reply.

The room was deep and narrow, with a long table of dark, polished wood taking up much of it. The table was surrounded by about a dozen chairs. It was the kind of room where a board of directors might meet. Yet there was only one other person in the room. He was sitting at the far side, but not at the head of the table itself, as if he didn’t quite rise to that level. A stylish bowler hat sat on the table next to his chair.

The man stood up. He was shorter than Aton and about ten years older. He wore the girth of a comfortable life. “Aton Askins?”

Aton nodded.

“Please, come sit.” The man waved to the chair across the table from him, then sat back down.

Aton sat down. “Mr. Laffargue?”

The other man dipped his head. “Indeed. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Askins. Can I offer you a drink of some kind? Just a word and they can pour anything you’d like.”

“No, thank you,” Aton said, trying to get comfortable in his seat. He put the envelope on the table.

“You know why I’m here. That gives you a leg up, so why don’t you tell me what I’m doing here?”

Laffargue grinned. “My, my, why the hurry?”

“I’m a working man, sir. I’ve come considerably out of my way to this meeting, so I need to know, sooner rather than later, whether it’s worth my while.” In truth, he had nothing else to do, but he wasn’t about to let a potential employer know that.

“I can respect that,” Laffargue said, shifting in his seat. “I have a job for you. A long-term proposition, something that would require exclusivity until it was complete. Would that be a problem?”

Aton was thrown off balance by the suggestion. Usually he had two or three jobs going all at once, although now he had hit a bit of an empty patch. “As it happens, I do have an opening in my schedule going forward. However, if you want me to turn business away, I’d need to be fairly compensated for that.”

“Oh, I don’t think compensation will be an issue,” Laffargue said. “But before we talk specifics, I need to know if you’re interested. If not, there’s no point.”

“How long are we talking?” Aton was intrigued.

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Gods of the Empire, book one of the Unari Empire Trilogy – coming October 1.

Preorder your copy now.

My New Book! Coming In October!

I’m a little excited.

Very happy to announce that my new book, Gods of the Empire, will be available everywhere fine eBooks are sold on October 1!

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What’s this one about? Glad you asked:

Aton Askins finds things and people that don’t want to be found, but is barely making a living. Now if he takes a new mission for a mysterious, wealthy patron, to find lost artifacts of the gods who left Oiwa centuries ago, he could make a life for himself and his sick daughter.

Lady Belwyn lost much in the Port Ambs bombing seven years ago – her husband, her right leg, and her confidence. Fitted with a new mechanical leg and taking her first steps back into society, she begins to ask questions about Port Ambs and why the perpetrators have never been caught – questions others don’t want to be answered.

While the Unari Empire begins to pull itself apart, two people will search for their own truths and learn things about their world that will change their lives forever.

For links where you can preorder the eBook edition, click here.

As you can see from the cover (another stunner from the folks at Deranged Doctor Designs), this is the first book in the Unari Empire Trilogy. The first draft of book two is almost done!

If you’re interested in paperback versions, you can get signed copies (at very reasonable prices) at my two upcoming appearances. One is next month at the West Virginia Book Festival, the other is in November at the  West Virginia Pop Expo. More details about those in the coming weeks.

Gone Writin’

It’s been a while since I did a writing update post, so this seemed as good a time as any.

The good/great news – Gods of the Empire, the first book in my new Unari Trilogy is (for all intents and purposes) done! There’s a few little things left to do with the text and Derange Doctor Design is hard at work whipping up a great cover, but I can say with confidence that it will be released this fall. The target is to be ready for the 2019 West Virginia Book Festival.

The bad news, for you blog readers, is that means that I’m now knee deep in Widows of the Empire, the second book in the trilogy. As a result, blogging is going to be light to nonexistent for the next little bit.

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Yessir. If all goes well I’ll have a first draft done by the end of the summer.

So, until then (barring something I just can’t hold in), take care of yourselves and have some fun!

WriteAtDawn

At Long Last

Over the weekend I reached a milestone on Gods of the Empire.

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That’s right – I finally have a complete, full, and edited draft of this book! It’s now time to print out a hard copy (I do my own editing electronically) and let my beta reader have a crack at it. It felt really good to put the finishing touches on it, since this is the first book in a “new” universe I’ve finished since The Water Road back in October of 2015.

So what’s next for this project? Obviously, my beta reader gets to bleed all over it with that there red pen, so I’ll have to see what’s left after that. Probably another edit from me, then it’s off to figure out how to let loose this book upon the world. I might shop it around a bit or go directly to the DIY route like I’ve done in the past.

As for me? I’m taking the week off from worrying about words and world building and all that jazz.

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After that, I’m not quite sure. I don’t want to dive right into the next book in this trilogy, Widows of the Empire, but I may plot it out and leave the actual writing for later this year. I’ve also got some stand-alone novel ideas I might work up, as well as the sequel to Moore Hollow. Finally, I’ve got some short story ideas kicking around that I might focus on.

Regardless, Gods of the Empire is well on its way to being finished!