Author Archives: accordingtohoyt

About accordingtohoyt

I am a novelist with work published in science fiction, fantasy, mystery and historical "novelized biography". I also write under the names Elise Hyatt and Sarah D'Almeida. http://sarahahoyt.com/

Fantasy in the City

We’ll start with the classic Urban Fantasy structure, mostly because I’d never noticed it, until Illona Andrews told me that Darkship Thieves followed it (it does.)

Now before we get too deep in, there’s a ton of Urban Fantasy that doesn’t fit this.  For one not all Urban Fantasy has females as the main character.  Both Dresden and Monster Hunter International are urban fantasies, after all, as are my own shifters series.

But the thing is that if you look at those, they kind of fit too.  MHI more easily than Dresden, but Dresden too, if you take the attractive scary opposite sex being as not being his main love interest (which is usually female.)

The thing is, as I explained in the comments before, that this is not a template to write by — though people sell things like “An urban fantasy template” but more a thing to look at when deciding what categories to put your novel for sale under.

First, let’s get something out of the way which I think I said at the beginning, but have since not mentioned and some of you might have lost sight of: structure is NOT what determines genre.  Genre is a combination of structure and other elements.  Even if your fantasy has a mystery structure (Dresden partakes a lot of the noir-mystery structure.  On structure alone it’s an hybrid between that and urban fantasy.)

And Darkship Thieves is STILL a space opera, despite having an urban fantasy structure.

So, before you go doing anything stupid, the essential elements of urban fantasy are: a city, and FANTASY.  I.e. some part if not all of the setup for the world must involve magic, (often) shape shifters or (very often) vampires.  Sure, now I think about it, you could get away with having some mysterious aliens in place of the magic creatures but be careful not to explain them too closely, because that puts you in science fiction realm.  (Well, to the readers of shifters, no, probably not, but that’s because I didn’t get to that till book 3.)

So it starts with: the city/area/world are in danger.  There is a supernatural menace coming for them.  And there is one chosen to stand against them.

The chosen part is very important, as is, at least in the beginning, the fact the chosen might not have any clue she is (most urban fantasies have female protagonists, so for the sake of convenience, I’ll use the female pronoun throughout.  Be aware it can also be male.)

Often the first thing the chosen knows about her special nature is that all these things are coming out of the woodwork to attack her.

After a while she figures out what’s going on, often with the help of the love interest/male counterpart.

This man is often somewhat odd himself and might be supernatural/have special powers.  On first meeting, she’s often scared of him, and sees only his scary qualities, though she might/probably will come to realize throughout the book/series that they have more in common than not.

Remember when I said it’s very important that the main character have special powers and be the chosen?

Often the first few books are “training” and discovering of/revealing of those powers, often while she fights her way up a hierarchy of baddies.  Every time a bad thing is defeated, we find that it was just a front for the truly big bad.

Long running series eventually pit their character against some vast, shadowy evil that plans to swallow the whole world/destroy mankind.

The first book often entails the main character discovering the full extent of her specialness/that she’s not quite human and accept her mission to defend others.  In that way the first book is often a “coming of age” novel for the main character.

Urban fantasy also has a certain feel to it.  Some people don’t consider urban fantasy proper unless it takes place in a large city, but this can be got around as Larry Correia did by shuttling the heroes around.

However, often urban fantasy shares the noir feel of “Through the mean streets the hero walks alone.”  Even if the hero is a she and the mean streets involve fangs.

Again, I’m sure I’m leaving a hundred things out, so feel free to ask questions.

Next week heroic fantasy.

 

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It’s Fantastic

Continuing the discussion of genre structure, to which I think we need to add “genre cookies” ie. things that people who read the genre a lot expect, almost as a reward, and are very happy when they find, today we take on fantasy.

Taking on fantasy is frankly like the tiny hero standing before the arrayed army of supernatural creatures going, “Come on all together or single file.  I’ll feed you your own hooves and chew you with your own teeth.”

You see fantasy — perhaps appropriately — contains multitudes, and I’m sure just in enumerating its various branches here, I’ll forget half of them.

We’ve come a long way since, as a young writer, I snorted at Orson Scott Card’s definition of “if it has trees it’s fantasy, if it has machines, it’s science fiction.”

Even then he wasn’t precisely right, nor did he claim to be.  He simply said that’s how New York editors viewed it, and hey, even as a beginner I knew those critters were silly enough for anything.

So what is fantasy?

Fantasy is something that is not, cannot be and will never be true, but which is used as a narrative device.

The gentleman at the back who said “FLT” can take his books and go to bed without dinner.  That’s an “impossible” of a different kind.  Sure, FTL is impossible, but we’re a cunning monkey, and maybe we find a way to sidle up to physics sideways and kosh it.  We’ve been doing the impossible of that sort all along.

Now, if your character uses his FTL drive to go somewhere and there meets fairies elves and gnomes, it’s open for discussion.  Both Simak and Bradbury got away with this as science fiction, but if you’re not one of them, I wouldn’t try.

We’ll dispose upfront of the curious hybrid: science fiction/fantasy.  This is where space societies have elves and magic.  Shrug.  Look, whatever presses your big red button, okay, but it don’t do nothing for me.  Yes, before you ask, I WAS one of those kids who didn’t like her food touching her other food.  Never said I was sane.

Leaving that aside, we still have a spectrum that goes from something you have to squint to not see as romance to something that is or could be science fiction, given the right amount of squinting.

So, I’m going to list them all below, and you guys feel free to pitch in some sub genres I might have forgotten.

Paranormal Romance – There is great argument over whether this is fantasy or romance. It often seems to involve romance that starts from magical something (attraction, fore-ordaining, that sort of thing) and which therefore can’t be fought by the rational mind.

Urban Fantasy – There’s a big bad out there, and he’s hot.  The many illegitimate children of Buffy the Vampire Slayer can shade into paranormal or can be an alluring hybrid of romance, fantasy, horror and a dash of noir.

Traditional/Tolkien fantasy – Anyone who’s ever conducted a campaign in RPG knows this.  Elves, gnomes, gnolls and trolls oh my.

It has sub genres: quest, as done by Tolkien himself (to an extent.)

Heroic, where you have the big picture of kingdom against kingdom etc.

It has sub branches and I, myself, might or might not have a handwritten trilogy taking place in a pre-Micenian society.  No trolls, gnolls, elves or whatever, but a lot of demi-gods, magic, and something supernatural and undefined.  The feel though is Tolkienesque and traditional heroic fantasy ALL the way.

Then there’s “almost real world fantasy”: “It’s almost the real world, but there are dragons.  Or elves.  Or…”  Before you say Urban Fantasy…. not precisely because Urban fantasy has a very precise structure and things like Tea With The Black Dragon don’t follow it.

Then there’s almost-real-world but historical and often in exotic societies.

And then, touching science fiction, there’s alternate history fantasy which is “there was magic at some point” and it has changed our world this way.  Again, a background that often appears in urban fantasy but there the consequences aren’t often worked through very carefully or logically.

On a sub branch we have “paranormal mysteries” which are a form of fantasy, and in which the ghost/demon/whatever can actually be the criminal, the investigator or the investigator’s best buddy.

20 years ago mystery bookstores said these were fantasy and refused to touch them with a ten foot pole, but I’m seeing more and more of it both on the shelves and on Amazon, both from indie and trad.  As a reader I don’t even mind, provided the supernatural element plays fair and it isn’t stupidly written.  If the solution is all “it was the demons” which we didn’t know existed till three pages earlier, your book will most seriously be walled.

Okay, that’s what I can think of off the top of my head.  Feel free to throw suggestions.

 

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The Peculiar Structure Of Police Procedurals

So Police procedurals are weird ducks.  The shows they have most in common with are things like CSI, but they are… different.

First of all, what you’re aiming for with a police procedural is “realism.”  Please remember that realism isn’t really real.  What I mean is, I’ve known enough policemen to know some amount of their job is “just a job.”

They go to work, they do what they have to do, they patiently gather clues, they file paper.  In a big department, they might be working on three or four cases at once.  I’m not saying they don’t care about catching murderers or thieves.  I’m saying that the best ones do, but it’s still a job.  You don’t put your entire life on hold to solve a crime, and it’s not existentially important to you.  Let me rephrase that: no more than a good writer puts her life on hold to finish a book, and no more than that is existentially important to her.  There are people insanely dedicated to their jobs, but still not like in the books.

Police procedurals make policemen into heroes, (and I don’t mean real policemen aren’t heroic, I mean, heroes like in comic books) and that means the structure and the required beats are much like a super hero story, melded with a mystery.

-often starts with trauma in childhood (or early case) that makes the policeman wounded and vulnerable.

-scenes at the station are interspersed with scenes at home, and none of them has a happy marriage, ever.  The atmosphere is “gritty” and pseudo realistic.

-Immediately after the childhood trauma, dream, whatever, you will have the body found.  Bodies are more realistic than in cozies, less so than in “For the gore” type of brutalistic mysteries.

After this there’s often a chapter that shows this person’s position in the force is precarious, either because of sex or past mistakes, or just because superior doesn’t like him.

Morgue scene.

Inquest scene.

There might or might not be interrogating suspects in between.

There will also be scenes of people bringing information to the detective: forensics, fingerprints, etc.

Because otherwise it would all be in the office and static, procedurals often have the lead investigator actually go out and question people OR work another case at the same time one that for some reason gets him in physical fights. This is not exactly believable, but it is within the universe of the mystery.

The breakthrough will come, as in private investigators’ mysteries through the investigator putting the info together in a new way and seeing the path to the solution.

If there is a love affair with a fellow law officer, it will often end in the woman (if there’s one) being jeopardy.

Oh, and where other mysteries have one other murder along the way, to clarify clues/solution, police procedurals often have two or three.

Most of the ones I read are British.  The latest one which is pretty good, starts with the victim, instead, because he’s a shady character, and takes us through his preparing blackmail before cutting to his being found.  It’s also told multiple person, so there is no one “detective.”  Works very well, actually.

Next week I’ll move on to Fantasy, unless you have questions I need to answer.

In the meantime, if you’re going to write police procedurals and have never been an officer or in a related profession: research.  People who read these by preference are PICKY.  (I’m not one of them.  I read them as well as most other things.)  Find out how the police is organized in that particular city and state. If you can get a ride along.

And do not, under any circumstances, call your police department and ask where to hide the body.  I knew someone who did.

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A Bagfull of Non-Police-Procedurals

Other than police procedurals (and there are I’m sure subgenres of those, but though I go on occasional police-procedural binges — now — it’s not my main playground, and I don’t normally examine them that closely) there are a ton of mysteries that fall somewhere in a gray area.

They all follow the general mystery structure of opening with a crime, having the first phase of inquiry, after which you have the second murder (often killing your main suspect) then a series of interviews (I highly recommend those in which the interviews take the form of fights or other unusual means of acquiring information) and finally the denouement and restoring the world to its proper place, with the additional chapter to provide the reader with a “cigarette moment” being optional (but appreciated by this reader.)

But there are variations that influence that structure and I’ll mention some variations.

Take Rex Stout’s Nero Wolf mysteries.  Are they cozies or not?  They fail on the front of not being PRECISELY as mannered as British cozies, but OTOH they are certainly not the blood and guts type realistic mystery.

What it actually is is a “relationship mystery.”  The relationship in question is friendship between two men, and in this it follows the pattern or Agatha Christie’s Poirot mysteries.  Only in this case it is more of a Sherlock/Watson thing, in that one of them is the brain and the other the “gatherer of information/forager in the world”  Or in this case, Archie Godwin is the muscle to Nero Wolfe’s brain.

So why do I call it a relationship mystery?  Because it is. Often the precipitating incident, reason to investigate the crime, whatever originates in the two main character’s relationship, which in this case is often one of getting on each other’s nerves.

I’ll note  a lot of these, these days, are not friendships but romances, (hetero, usually) and that this isn’t a bad thing.  If you create a compelling enough relationship over several books, I have found I will read them even if the mystery is meh, because I want to know what you’re doing with these interesting characters.  I suspect I’m not the only one.  Note though that you can’t give them happy ever after on the first book for this to work.  Often the relationships that will have me binge a series are well night impossible by reasons of either personality or society.

Place/time/society mystery.  There was some years ago a woman doing Hollywood mysteries.  She might still be.  I started reading electronic and lost track of her.  The structure is still the basic mystery structure.  HOWEVER the place/time/type of society is an extra character.  Assume that your readers are reading you because they were attracted by the location or peculiarity of the setting.  You need to make sure your interrogation scenes/etc. exploit that setting to its full extent, or you’re going to piss of the reader.  For extra dollop of fun make sure the motive is something relating only to that setting.  (Yeah, Hollywood motives can be hilarious.  Or bizarre.  or both.)

Craft mystery – I think I already mentioned this.  It is not enough for your character to meet the murderer/witness the murder at a craft show.  For this to work, your character has to have special knowledge derived from the craft that enable the solving of the murder.  This is why I couldn’t do a “real” craft mystery.  While I do crochet, I don’t go to shows, and I never learned the lingo.  I just do what I see.

Supernatural mystery – instead of interviews, etc, you’re allowed to have dreams or visions or whatever.

Then there is the hard boiled mystery, which is NOT a  procedural.  These often billed themselves as realistic.  They’re not, of course.  They’re just mysteries for the people who want to be shocked by the descriptions/motives/etc of the crime and therefore think themselves tougher than those who read cozies.

These mysteries often use shock value/blood and gore to distract you from the obvious solution.

Since the ethos of the writing is “we’re all damned” often there is no punishment for the crime.

Next up: the peculiar structure of police procedurals.

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Thrill Me

Sorry this is so late.  ( BUT NOT THIS THIS LATE.  Fricking word press.  I pressed “publish” TWICE but they now have this whole “are you really sure?” thing and I guess it glitched.) I’ve been fighting wicked jet-lag which is also interfering with my primary mission of finishing the first draft of Guardian.

This is why I decided to work on Thrillers today, because I’m talking structure, and they are almost exclusively a creature of structure.  Sure, they’re a mystery subgenre because that’s mostly where we encounter it, but it is possible to superimpose the thriller structure on anything and everything from Urban fantasy to… well, anything.

I used it “successfully” (for a definition that says people identify it.  It doesn’t work well int he series as is, and was imposed by an agent for whom thriller=bestseller structure) in All Night Awake, a Shakespearean historical fantasy.

It USUALLY requires a “known perpetrator” when doing a mystery, but Patricia Wentworth often managed to do it with unknown perpetrator, where the scenes with the “monster” give nothing away as to his identity.  These can often be a mix between thriller and “psychological” mysteries, in that the reader is trying to identify which of the seemingly normal characters can act like the monster-chapters.

Okay, so, thriller.

-Open with the “monster” (the criminal/threat/whatever) doing something horrendous.  We now know his range.  If your thriller is a Woman In Peril the horrendous thing he does should be to a woman.  It should also be ABSOLUTELY the worst you can imagine

-Have good guys become aware of the threat.  (Often in thrillers, the people pursuing/trying to stop the threat are acquainted with this particular evil.)  They start trying to track it down.

-intersperse scenes of the “monster” hunting down his victim, with the victim either trying to identify the monster/going about her lawful occasions.

-in that last one, we assume you have more than one victim.  Because the ultimate intended victim almost always needs to be either one of those trying to solve the crime, or the love interest/someone close to those trying to solve the crime.
However, you’re allowed to have multiple victims who look/act/have markers like the ultimate one, in order to make the threat absolutely clear.  You should have the ultimate victim in the monster’s sights from the beginning, though.

– The climax should come to the victim being captured by the monster and ALMOST killed, with intervention/save at the last possible moment, after seeming near impossible.  In a mystery, neutralizing the monster comes straight after unmasking/figuring out who he is/how he’s doing this, etc.

-In non-mystery situations the intended “victim” of the monster can be an entire world/magic system/government/whatever.  The structure is still roughly the same.

Up next week “A bagful of non-police procedurals.”

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Feudal Systems for Writers by Alma Boykin

Feudal Systems for Writers by Alma Boykin

 

So you want to write a medieval setting, fantasy or space-feudalism in sci-fi, or an alien society with a feudal system. All you need some peasants, a few knights, some nobles of various flavors, and ladies, and a castle or two and you are good to go. Right? Because everyone knows how feudal systems worked. You saw a few medieval-themed movies and went to a RenFest, so you have all the material you need.

Screeeeeech! Crash! Tinkletinkle rollrollroll. That was your story as it collided with readers’ expectations and patience.

I’m not an expert. However, I’ve been doing a lot of reading and writing about medieval and other feudal systems, and I’d like to give you a few ideas and hints, so you don’t end up with knightmares of angry readers.

Which time period and place are you basing your feudal system on? France in the 1100s was different from China in the 300s-800s from Japan in the 1300s-1800 from England from the German-speaking lands from Poland from… Yes, all those times and places had a version of what most people think of as a feudal system. And there is material out there if you look for it, although you may end up approaching your topic a little sideways. For example, I had no idea China had a true feudal system until very recently, because it disappeared after around 900 or so and was replaced by the scholar-bureaucrats.

So, what exactly is a feudal system? There are about two dozen definitions that I’ve seen, but a rule of thumb is that they all have reciprocal duties, and include land ownership based on military duties of some kind. Many start with the assumption that the top feudal overlord, let’s call him a king, owns the land through divine right or descent or marriage (or because his ancestors beat the daylights out of the other claimants). He allocates either the land, or revenue from that land, to vassals in exchange for military service and council. The portions of land or land-based revenue are called fiefs, and to have one is to be enfeoffed. The king has the duty to provide justice among his vassals, and to protect them if they are attacked. The great vassals, let’s call them princes or dukes, in turn have subordinate vassals, and so down to peasants and serfs or slaves. The peasants have some duties of defense in exchange for owning or renting the land, but they are free to move (usually) and have more rights of justice than do serfs and slaves. Each layer has duties to those above and those below, and in theory, when a liege fails his duty to a vassal, the vassal has the right to jump ranks and complain, or to leave and go his own way. In theory.

Actual feudal systems are far messier, and more complicated, and varied across time and place. To use the German-speaking lands as an example, you had some churchmen, bishops and archbishops and some abbots of very rich and/or powerful abbeys and monasteries who were feudal vassals of the German Kings/ Holy Roman Emperors. But they also were subordinates to the Pope. Most of the time this was not a big deal. But when the king and the pope got cross-threaded, what’s a bishop to do? And bishops were not supposed to shed blood in warfare, so how could they uphold their duty to defense? A few, Bishop Odo of Normandy comes to mind, used a war-hammer or club instead of a sword. Others, who were bishops of knightly orders, had different rules. And women could be war leaders if necessary, especially in the earlier days of feudalism or in the German-speaking lands, where family ties were more important for longer.

Oh, and there were people who were outside the feudal system, who were acknowledged sometimes and punished sometimes. The “free city” developed out of the need to re-start trade after the period-formerly-known-as-the-Dark Ages, roughly AD 450-800 CE in Europe. The Italian city-states developed a little earlier and were a bit like little tiny countries centered on an urban area, like Florence, Sienna, Venice, Turin, or Pisa. The free cities were exempt from feudal control and owed their allegiance and tax money only to the Holy Roman Emperor as King of the Germans, and later just as HRE. Citizens of the free cities, places like Frankfurt, Nuremburg, Speyer, Hamburg, Lübeck, Bruges (sort of. Bruges is complicated) governed themselves and while they acknowledged that the nobles had armies and needed to be treated with a little diplomatic care, the free cities didn’t owe them feudal dues. The free cities could sign treaties, make alliances, and act without consulting any noble other than the Holy Roman Emperor, and even then it was often after the fact.

Not everyone liked the outside-inside position of the free cities, and a lot of attempts were made to bring them under feudal subjugation, sometimes successfully. Because the feudal system was about station and place. Everyone had a place and station, assigned by accident of birth and the will of [$DEITY$], and anyone outside that hierarchy was suspect. For example,  churchmen in Europe, and nobles, and rich city residents, complained about lower sorts dressing and acting like “their betters.” That happened elsewhere, and it was a rare feudal system (or post-feudal China) that did not have sumptuary laws to ensure that the commoners looked like commoners, no matter how much money they might have had. Feudal systems all share the idea of group identity. You were born a peasant, you were raised a peasant, and you acted like a peasant. You respected those above you no matter how incompetent they might be, because that’s how the world worked. Unless you were carried off into slavery somewhere, or you happened to live in a feudal system with more flexibility, like England or the German-speaking lands.

Because there were always exceptions, especially in Europe. The more sermons and laws against conspicuous consumption and trade that were written, the more people consumed and traded. People found ways around the system, at least once the early pressures of outside threat and interior anarchy receded. The competent commoner might earn his way up the ladder over a few generations. Or he might succeed in obtaining residency, then citizenship in a city and be able to earn more respect and money and eventually join the patrician ranks. Or he might slide back down into the common mass.

The western feudal systems eventually led to parliaments and limited monarchies, sort of. But not always. The eastern feudal systems… China’s nobility of birth pretty much vanished after 880, when many of them were massacred during a rebellion. The scholar-bureaucrats replaced them in the government, swinging the focus of government from military exploits to civil management in the process. The titles were still around, in various forms, but the power never returned to hereditary nobles. The Japanese feudal system shifted around until the Tokugawa Shogunate, when Tokugawa Ieyasa and his successors de-fanged the nobility, disarmed the commoners (or tried to) and locked society into place for several hundred years. Mostly. As long as you didn’t look at the merchants and the “floating world.”

I’ve written three feudal variants. One is the Azdhag Empire, where heredity plus competence are required to be in the aristocracy. And you have the Pack, the gene-level bond between the Azdhagi that makes Rada Ni Drako’s fur stand on end. The Azdhagi are based on Japanese, Chinese, and imaginary systems.  There is the Eastern Empire of the Colplatschki Chronicles, which is a loose nod towards the later Holy Roman Empire and draws on recent scholarship about how the HRE really functioned. And there is the world of Tycho Gaalnar Rhonarida, a free merchant from the free-city of Rhonari who must navigate free cities and feudal cities and who nods to the Great Northern Emperor, a ruler who has not been seen or heard for five generations.* Although all the series are set in recognizable feudal systems, all are different in how they function and all have grown in different directions from how I first imagined them. When I started the Azdhagi, I didn’t know about the Pack. But it explains a great deal about the society and why it is so stable despite economic and technological changes.

Land in exchange for service. Mutual obligations of support, defense, and justice. A well-known hierarchy of social orders that is enforced and encouraged. Once you have those established, the variations are almost endless. Out of inner perversity, my characters seem to like knowing those orders and those places, especially when they can climb the ranks. Tycho is different, but his complaint is less with the fact of society being feudal than when counts and dukes take his goods without paying. He’s not going to turn into a wild-eyed rebel calling for the equality of all men. He likes being a patrician, thank-you-very-much.

Now go forth and create your own worlds, or write a story set in Thirteenth Century Gascony. Just do a little research first, please. Your readers will thank you.

 

*The Great Northern Emperor shows up in the sequel. A lot of people are surprised. Not always pleasantly surprised.

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Skeletons From The Writer’s Closet by Christopher M. Chupik

Skeletons From The Writer’s Closet

by Christopher M. Chupik

 

Sarah was joking that this should have been done Halloween week because one’s juvenilia is always scary to look back on. I recently decided to look into my old green file folder and see if I’ve grown as a writer. All spelling and grammar mistakes are reproduced faithfully.

My oldest surviving work of fiction is a school workbook repurposed into my illustrated saga Dinosaur: The Lost Land (Frist of 7!). According to the inside jacket, it was published by Bookworm Publishing 1987. Yes, that’s right. I was a pioneering indie author! Mind you, Bookworm went under not long after putting this book out, so maybe I shouldn’t brag so much.

The eight-page epic begins thusly:

“It was the ICE-AGE. The NARWANTY tribe was looking for a new home. They have found an ISLAND in the South Pacific. It was surrounded by fog.”

The Narwanty settle on this fog-bound island only to find it inhabited by dinosaurs:

” ‘LOOK, Theres a WERID thing comeing!’ It was a Tyrannosaurus Rex! It was 22 meters long and 40 feet tall!”

See how I cleverly got around the fact that cavemen and dinosaurs lived millions of years apart? Eat your heart out, Michael Crichton. The mash-up of eras is skillfully illustrated by the symbolism of rendering the T-Rex’s measurements in both Imperial and Metric. Also, the shifting of tenses conveys the temporal dislocation of the Narwanty. Honest.

After several dinosaur vs. caveman clashes, the tribe settles down and a sequel is threatened. I think I did a few more Dinosaur Island stories, but most of those are lost now. Perhaps that’s for the best.

Next stop on my tragical history tour is a short story I wrote in junior high based on the legend of the Beast of Le Gevaudan. I suspect I must have already read some of the Solomon Kane stories by Robert E Howard because the protagonist is a German monster hunter named Josef Siegfried armed with sword, musket and bullwhip. He never uses the bullwhip. Siegfried quickly discovers that the Beast is actually a werewolf:

“Karl said that all wolves and men were the children of Fenric and that werewolves were Fenrics closest relations. Fenric created werewolves to become the masters of the world in the final days before the world’s end.”

That’s quite some cosmology I had going there, though I mangle mythology terribly. Why would a wolf from Norse myth create the human race, wolves, and werewolves? No idea. Later, the hunters encounter the werewolf:

“You stupid, stupid human” he said in German. Then the man leapt into the air at Josef. During the flight the man’s features twisted and transformed into the features of a wolf.”

Clearly, dialogue was not my strong point. Neither was sentence structure. But at least I had developed some sense of energy and action. And it set the stage for the kind of stories I like to write now.

Last stop is my Biology 20 Major Assignment from 1995. For it, I decided to write a piece of Hard SF about an interstellar flight to Alpha Centauri and the life-bearing planet the astronauts find. I certainly did not lack for ambition.

In The Odyssey/Falstaff Report: A speculation on the future of space travel, I lay out a history of early concepts for interstellar travel, including graphics of Orion and Daedalus. I also have a graphic of the Odyssey and it’s Clippers (based on the old Delta Clipper rocket concept). For graphics rendered with a crappy mid-90s drawing program I think they look pretty decent. I wish I could share them here. I have a crew list (several classmates and teachers included as in-jokes). There’s even a helpful timeline:

“2012 – An alliance of the North American Trade Bloc, European Union, Japan, South Africa and three other nations begin work on Project Lightsail, a program of interstellar exploration.”

Optimistic, isn’t it? If you had told the 18 year-old me that the space program would be on life-support by the real 2012, I would have cried. I lay out the Odyssey mission in detail, going into the physics of the laser-propelled lightsail and the 25-year flight to Alpha Centauri. I even took the long-term effects of zero-G into account with a drug called Gravitol (I googled this and found the name and idea was also used in the TSR Buck Rogers XXVC game which was out back in the early ’90s. Did I crib it? Seems possible). Finally, I get to the planet Falstaff (Not sure why I named the planets after Shakespearean characters, seemed cool at the time I guess). Falstaff is roughly similar to Cambrian Era Earth, with most organisms confined to the seas:

“The alphanauts discovered through submersible probes vast herds of armored fish known as sea-tanks that swim through the murky waters of the deep sea, hunting for silt dwelling worms that are occasionally exposed. Another predator is the spitting-worm, a large invertibrate that kills its victims with a poisonous mucus that contains digestive enzymes that help the worm devour its prey.”

I must admit, some run-on sentences and odd terminology (“herds” of fish?) aside, it holds up not too badly. However, the biology aspects, which were the whole reason for the story, don’t take up a huge amount of the report. That didn’t stop me from getting a 30/30 for my assignment. My teacher wrote on the last page: “You have gone far above and beyond what was required.” And that remains my favorite comment from a teacher ever.

I may laugh at some of it now, but I can see my progression as an author. It’s said that you have to write a million words of crap before you can get to the good stuff. I’d like to think I’m finally at that point.

So, what have you got hidden away in your secret files? Confess!

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