Thursday, April 30, 2015

Building stories on unconventional structures -- breaking the rules for fun and profit!

This week we're going to talk about story structure. When do you stick to the rules of conventional structure, and when do you break them?

Editor's Note: For more information about unconventional story structures, click here.

When you create a story, how do you approach story structure? How often do you alter that structure with minor changes like a framing sequence, flashbacks, etc. and how do you know when one is appropriate for a story?

Mark Bousquet: I find that when I get unconventional, it tends to be mood driven rather than story driven. That is, I decide I need a break from straight-ahead, linear style and jump into writing something that pushes me to get out of the linear comfort zone, and look for a story I can tell in that style. I wrote a Victorian horror novel in the form of a journal (The Haunting of Kraken Moor). I've written a superhero novel called USED TO BE (not out yet) which jumps narrative tense with nearly every chapter. When my main character, Kid Rapscallion (Jason Kitmore), is in the present, I write in first person, present tense, but when I flashback to the story of his life, I use third person, present tense. The book is divided into sections, with each section taking a different year of Jason's life (at the start of the novel, it's a decade since he stopped being Kid), and there's all kinds of news clips and video transcripts cut in to round out the story. It's meant to be unconventional because I wanted to write something that jumped around and shifted perspective because that's how we tend to remember our lives, I think - in bits and scattered pieces, where something we do at 28 might be because of something that happened when we were 18, even though there were lots and lots of things in between. It was a blast to write.

Robert Krog: I approach structure instinctively most of the time, which means I usually tell stories with a pretty conventional or natural feeling structure; that is, what feels natural to me. I rarely make a conscious decision about it. I’ve written several stories that match up with items on the list at litreactor, and, of these, two were consciously planned as being unusual types and one was just a moment of inspiration. The first one of this type is “Guirsu’s Story” from the unfinished, collaborative effort that is forever stuck with the working title The Eden Charm. In it, the title character is magically entrapped in a state of sensory deprivation and subject to subtle, psychic attack for years. His story is told in random bursts, out of sequence, and with an unreliable narrator. So I get a twofer for unconventional on that one. The demands of the story seemed to require both, and my collaborator and I, a pox on him for not finishing his part, decided on that before I wrote a word of it. I wrote a story in second person for a specific story call. “The Guy that the Other Guy Fell on, or Vice Versa” was published in You Don’t Say: Stories in the Second Person. I approached it that way because the guidelines said to do so and the editor asked me so nicely to contribute. The last one that is clearly unconventional is a story titled “Other Songs.” It told from the point of view of a piece of rock, because I was inspired that way. You may find it here.

Percival Constantine:I start with a collection of ideas jotted down in a notebook, then I form these into a coherent story by writing up a synopsis. But I don't think of things like framing sequences and flashbacks as something to alter a structure, rather they're part of the structure.

R.J. Sullivan: It's all about what best serves the story. I can think of two instances where I ignored convention and in both cases it worked better for the story and as far as I can tell, it hasn't confused anyone yet. The majority of my first novel Haunting Blue is a first person tale from the POV of the teenage protagonist. There is a flashback incident that takes place before she was born, but vital to the tale. I inserted three lengthy third person "interludes" between chapters that go back and tell that story. So there's three chapters in the present, an interlude 15 years earlier, three more chapters in the present, a second interlude (picking up from the previous interlude) then repeat one more time. By the end of the third interlude the reader knows where the money is hidden and how it got there, just as the protag is planning to go out and find it.

Another time I broke tradition was in the short story "Robot Vampire," which starts out telling the story in deep third from the point of view of the inventor, At a key point, the robot gained sentience, and I broke the narrative and began again first person from the robot's perspective, taking the reader through the 'awakening" and going forward to the end of the story.

Lance Stahlberg: Would in media res be considered "unconventional"? I also tend to weave in a lot of flashbacks, which seems a lot more common in TV scripts.

With the success of unconventional structures as in movies like Pulp Fiction, Mulholland Drive, and Memento, and books like They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, Gone Girl, and S., do you find your work more or less open to embracing an out of the box approach to the narrative structure?

Mark Bousquet: Even going back to my fanfic days, I really enjoyed writing narratives that jumped around. I think there's something powerful about the meaning we can derive from a non-linear look at a person's life. It's always taken me aback, a little, how a genre like New Pulp can be open to a social enlightening (going back to an earlier time and focusing on issues that were not popular in the pulps of the day) but that it often seems so completely closed to doing this aesthetically. There's a resistance in some quarters to telling non-linear stories.

Robert Krog: Eh, I hadn’t thought about it. I’m actually not inspired to write by most movies I see and haven’t read the books that are cited. It seems that Slaughter House Five had what qualifies as an unconventional structure. I read that long time ago. It may have unconsciously influenced me on some occasion, I suppose. It begins with the main character being unstuck in time or some such phrase. The situation of the character in my, alas, unfinished, collaborative work is similar. Generally, I tend not to follow trends, so seeing a movie or reading a book that is unusual in its structure isn’t likely to alter my habits, at least not immediately. Things do sink into the subconscious mind.

Percival Constantine: I taught a class recently on story structure, specifically focusing on the three-act structure and how common it is, and one of the students asked me about things like flashbacks or telling a story in a jumbled chronological order. And what I said is that structure doesn't have to follow a linear timeline. If you look at something like Memento or Mulholland Drive, even though the story isn't presented in a linear fashion, the elements of structure are still there, and they still hit the basic points in the format. But as for me, I don't really see the need for a lot of unconventional storytelling in the type of stories I write.

When and why would you use an unconventional narrative in your work?

Mark Bousquet: When the work will be better for it and when I feel like stretching my typewriter.

Robert Krog: I use unconventional narrative structure when the narrative calls for it, and, until now, I never called it unconventional narrative structure. I did think that writing a story from the perspective of a rock was pretty unique, it’s true. If the guidelines of a story call for it, of course, then that’s how it has to be if one submits. Otherwise, it’s a moment of inspiration thing or a what is called for thing. As I mentioned above, a character in an unhinged situation or mental state might well call for an unhinged structure to his narrative. I may, at some point set out on purpose to write something according to the suggestions at litreactor just for the challenge. That’s as good a reason as any.

Percival Constantine: When the story calls for it. Always when the story calls for it.

R.J. Sullivan: While I typically try to stick to the rules, I found that playing around in instances like this have paid off.

Which do you prefer to read, a regular narrative or something more outside the box? Why?

Mark Bousquet: I like the variety of jumping back and forth, the same way I like reading Faulkner next to Hemingway, or Twain next to Eco, or a horror novel next to an espionage thriller. I think reading, say, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn next to The Island of the Day Before helps me to see beyond the surface of the texts in a more vibrant way. It helps bring out the depth of Huck and Jim and helps to focus the memories of Roberto della Griva into something more understandable.

Robert Krog: I have a preference for good stories. The narrative style either works or it doesn’t. I don’t recall having ever thought upon closing the last page of book, “Wow, that story had really good narrative structure!” My response is usually more on the lines of, “Wow, what a good story!” I’m not unaware of structure, mind you, nor am I disdainful of it. It is merely that it is not usually at the forefront of my thoughts. My thoughts on structure come up when a story is bad and the badness stands out because of structural defects or much later upon reflection. It is not what I think about when choosing a book to read nor is it my first thought on finishing a book. When I do reflect on a book, after finishing it, I will sometimes include its structure in my reflections, if that structure was unconventional or just particularly well constructed.

Percival Constantine: I don't really have a preference one way or the other. Mulholland Drive is one of my favorite movies. But then again, so is The Avengers.

R.J. Sullivan: As for what I prefer, again, it comes back to the story. If the reason the writer did it is clear, and it helps me follow along, I'll go with them anywhere (Christopher Nolan's Momento comes to mind -- which worked surprisingly well) If it's just the writer goofing off, I get frustrated and quit.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Nugget #49 -- Redemption's Great Cost

I tend to write characters looking for redemption because 
of some failure, but when they have it just within reach, 
they either falter and make the choice that leads them 
further away from it -- or they manage to find it, but at 
some great cost to the person they are at that moment.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Elizabeth Donald's Missives from Schnectady

Upon first meeting, Elizabeth Donald is an enigma. To meet her, you'd never imagine all the darkness that seeps from her brain to her books. But darkness is indeed her friend, and thanks to that kinship she's had quite a run of truly creepy tales -- and a new one just released. But why not let her tell you all about it.

Tell us a bit about your latest work.

Seventh Star Press has just released a compendium of my vampire series, all three novels in one volume titled Nocturne Infernum. It’s a delight to see my toothsome vamps back in action, and so much fun to revisit those books in the process of getting this release together. Part One, Nocturnal Urges, was my first published novel back in the dim dark years of 2004 when ebooks were a mystery. My vampires live in an alternate world inspired by the Jim Crow laws of the 1920s, where they are treated as second-class citizens without the rights of full humans – and they’re pretty pissed off about it. It’s the story that launched my career, and I hope readers enjoy it as much in its second round as they did a decade ago. Particularly since I’ve got a few ideas for more stories…

What are the themes and subjects you tend to revisit in your work?

It depends who you ask! If you asked my fans or even my husband, they’d say grueling misery and misfortune. I usually respond, “Well, I am a horror writer.” If all my stories ended happily with people riding off into the sunset, I’d have to pick another genre! It’s hard for any writer to analyze her own work with success, because we can never be objective about anything as personal as our writing. But if I had to pick a theme, it would be, “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.” Whether it’s love, freedom, friendship, safety, happiness or life itself, we take things for granted until we are threatened with losing them. And sometimes, in those moments of crisis, we find out who we really are.

That, and things that go chomp in the night. I really like those.

What would be your dream project?

There’s a story that lives in the trunk, and it bugs me. I wrote the first draft when I was all of seventeen years old, and it was wretched. In college, I rewrote it, velo-bound copies at Kinko’s and gave them to my friends for Christmas. It was still wretched, but now there was physical evidence – and some of those bastards still have those copies. They stubbornly refuse to burn them.

But that world – the Sanctuary universe – still loiters in the back of my mind. I’ve written a handful of short stories set in that post-apocalypse, the human race’s scrabble for survival after an alien invasion. But that original novel and the characters it birthed still want to live. I’ve made a few stabs at fixing it up over the years, and the problem is… I’m not good enough yet. Not for that one. I think every writer has that idea that you just know will be amazing, as soon as you have enough skill at the craft to pull it off. We’re all works in progress.

If you have any former project to do over to make it better, which one would it be, and what would you do?

My first response would be, “I wouldn’t have killed off so many people in The Cold Ones!” That zombie novella was supposed to be a standalone, and the body count was pretty high. But it was delightful fun, and surprised everyone – including the publisher and me! – by selling out its print run in 48 hours. Next thing I know it’s a trilogy, and I still kick myself for not saving a few people from that first book. Oh well, it’s a zombie world, right? Nobody dies forever!

What inspires you to write?

This is right up there with, “Where do you get your ideas?” I get that one from time to time, and I steal Harlan Ellison’s answer: “Schenectady.” Ellison complains that no author can answer that question, and so he tells people that he orders his inspiration in six-packs from an idea service in Schenectady. And just like Ellison, someone always thinks I’m telling the truth.

The question really isn’t what inspires me to write. The question is, why don’t you? I believe everyone has that spark of imagination, everyone gets little ideas and flashes of creative inspiration all the time. It comes in the shower, while stuck in traffic, in those last few minutes when you’re drifting off to sleep. The only difference between the rest of the world and the writers is that writers do something with those little flashes of inspiration. We wrestle them into submission and make them dance for your entertainment. We have to, or else they’ll drive us crazy. I’m no different than anyone else; I just stay up later making my ideas dance.

What writers have influenced your style and technique?

When I was a girl, I stole my mother’s Stephen King hardbacks and read them under the covers. I was “too young” to read them, so I left the dust jackets in their places on the shelves so she wouldn’t notice they were missing. (Hi Mom! Love ya.) I was long ready to leave behind Lois Duncan and Nancy Drew, and King drew me into the shadows. It’s fair to say King was a huge influence, both with his clear, direct prose and his focus on writing about People Like Us. He wrote about teachers and teenagers, mill workers and shopkeepers: normal people, faced with abnormal things that represented the common ordinary fears that we all have. I aspired to write something that clear, that reached people in their hearts and made them afraid of the dark.

Later I discovered other giants like Richard Matheson, Harlan Ellison and Peter David; I can only aspire to Ellison’s gift with words. But for me, it all began with King.

Where would you rank writing on the "Is it an art or it is a science continuum?" Why?

 I don’t know that there is a true dividing line between art and science. Writing is a craft, and like any craft it’s one that requires equal measures of talent and discipline to hone. Certainly there are those who treat it as something nearly mystical that floats about in the ether until it chooses to be born; others who see it as laying pipe, step by step instructions churning out words on an assembly line. I cannot find fault with either approach or anywhere else on the spectrum, because every author needs to find his or her own path and use the techniques found to be most effective.

As for me, I appreciate those little missives from Schnectady, and I am getting better at catching them before they flit away.

Any other upcoming projects you would like to plug?

 I have a short story collection titled Moonlight Sonata that will be coming out later this year. Some of the stories have appeared in various magazines or as standalone novellas, and others have never appeared anywhere – including a few set in my existing universes. I really hope people enjoy it as much as I enjoyed putting it together.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Writer Will Take Your Questions Now #322 -- Book Trailers

What do you think of “trailers” for books?

I think I've seen some amazing ones, and I think I've seen some awful ones. But I don't have statistics to back up whether either works for its intended purpose -- increased book sales.

Personally, I think a well done book trailer looks nice and is a pretty snazzy component to use in a book's promotional plan, but only if done well.

They also seem to me to be the kind of thing that if you need one to help sell a book, then even a good one is not going to help you build the kind of audience required to really work a book trailer through. And if you're the kind of author who doesn't really need a book trailer then you probably will get a great one and see all kinds of amazing throughput with it.

In other words (if I may use a video game reference since I've been watching my kids play shooters a lot lately), it's a good weapon for the last guy in your strike team to have available, but I wouldn't think it does much good for the key folks on your team who are going to be leading the attack. 

That said, I did produce one to accompany The Ruby Files that I think captures the spirit of the book quite nicely.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

[Link] The Perils of Plans: Why Creativity Requires Leaping into the Unknown

by Maria Popova

“The job—as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy—of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it.”

“Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind,” I offered in one of my 7 lessons from 7 years of Brain Pickings. Indeed, nothing stunts growth more powerfully than our attachment to the familiar, our blind adherence to predetermined plans, and our inability to, as Rilke famously put it, “live the questions.” Keats termed the willingness to embrace uncertainty, live with mystery, and make peace with ambiguity “negative capability” and argued that it’s essential to the creative process; Anaïs Nin believed that inviting the unknown helps us live more richly, and even psychologists confirm that embracing uncertainty is essential to creativity. And yet we cling so vigorously to our comfort zones, our plans, our knowns — why?

Read the full article:

Saturday, April 25, 2015


Van Allen Plexico receives his award from Rob Davis.
On Friday night, April 17th, at this year’s Windy City Pulp & Paper Convention, the sixth annual Pulp Factory Awards were presented.   These awards spotlight the best in new pulp fiction and artwork from the previous year.  The award trophies were presented by the Yahoo Pulp Factory Group Moderator, Ron Fortier and Rob Davis, Art Director for Airship 27 Productions.

The Best Pulp Novel went to Van Allen Plexico for his space opera, “Legion III : Kings of Oblivion from White Rocket Books.

The Best Pulp Short Story went to Ian Watson for his “The Fort of Skulls” which appeared in “Pride of the Mohicans” from White Rocket Books.

For the very first time, the Best Pulp Anthology/Collection award went to White Rocket Books for “Pride of Mohicans.”

The Best Pulp Cover went to Mark Williams for his painted cover to “Legion II : Sons of Terra” from White Rockets.

Best Interior Illustrations went to Fabio Listrani for his illustrations in “Zombies Vs. Robots: No Man’s Land” from IDW.

Our congratulations to all the winners and especially to White Rocket Books for their near sweep.  The awards themselves reflected nominations from twenty-four new pulp publishers.

Friday, April 24, 2015

[Link] Why self-publishing is the new punk

by Dylan Hearn

In mid-1970’s Britain, record companies were king. They controlled their industry. Any artist who wanted a career in music had to have a record contract – major artists on relatively good terms but many of the mid-sized to newer entrants on contracts that would have today’s employment lawyers licking their lips. There were a limited number of radio stations, all of whom relied on the record companies to gain access to artists, and in return the record companies’ product dominated the playlists. If you weren’t linked to a record company, you had no chance.

At the same time, the music itself becoming staid, some would say bloated. Established artists were given a free rein, which for many meant bigger, longer and – you will have to excuse me – just a bit up their own backsides. The pop charts, while containing some classics, were full of formulaic songs with high production values performed by the young and beautiful and written by songwriters in the pay of the studios. Yes, there were some artists pushing at the boundaries and trying new things but these were on the fringes. Profit was king and so record companies played it safe, churning out the same thing, over and over, knowing that it was the most cost-efficient and profitable process. I know that there will be some of you reading this and shouting how dare I, what about artists X, Y or Z. My answer is for you to look back at the charts of any week during 1973 – 1975 and tell me how many songs of true quality it contains.

Then, punk happened. Frustrated at the music on offer, the young rebelled. Advances in technology that allowed home recording for the first time and the kids took full advantage. At the same time a few, pioneering DJ’s were willing to promote their work (because mass distribution was still in the control of the few). The musical landscape changed within a matter of months.

Of course, there was uproar. Record companies and many established artists claimed it was just noise. Some bemoaned the sound quality and the lack of  technical skill of the performers. Small, entrepreneurial record labels sprang up to meet the demand. The energy, passion and self-belief created by this opportunity gave rise, not just the big-selling punk artists still known today, but thousands of musicians who continue to make money out of music through small but loyal followings to this day.

Before you accuse me of having the rose-tinted nostalgia of an old punk, I was five years old when all this happened. But it is clear now, looking back, that punk shook the staid music industry to its core.

Read the full article:

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Role of the Innocent Hero

You can file this one under the "The More Things Change." Almost 20 years ago, I used to run a fansite called DCU: Next Generation that covered the teen and  young heroes of the DC universe. Comics had recovered from the wave of cynisicm of the 80s and were rediscovering a more fun and (dare I say it now?) innocent tone. So I did my first roundtable interview ever, (yes, ever), and I cold contacted lots of then popular comic book creators to pick their brains about that very idea. So, here is that blast from the past. (Just remember to read it in its context historically in the market, especially if you're an old fart like me.) 

A Note About the Art: All the art shown with this article is from the original fan art gallery on the DCU: Next Generation website. 


A long time ago, in a galaxy remarkably similar to this one, there once existed a group of super-powered (and not so super-powered) individuals who flew the skies and ruled the nights, making the streets safe for everyone else. They weren't driven by dark psychoses or private, hidden agendas. They simply believed life was precious and that there was a moral foundation for society to operate on. Well, that, and they believed flashy costumes were actually hip.

But, as with all things, time (and new writers and artists) assaulted these heroes, and twisted them into psychotic, tainted beings who kept society safe for reasons of their own. Some creators did so with admirable skill (Alan Moore's Watchmen and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns come to mind), but many merely followed what seemed to be the newest trend. It was no longer acceptable to be good simply for the sake of being good. Justice was no longer its own reward. Heroes had to be driven by attempts to purge their dark pasts, traumatic events that played forever in their minds' eyes, or some private (i.e., selfish) reasons that weren't necessarily noble -- that is, if the heroes still maintained a sense of heroism at all; many of them were simply villains stalking other (supposedly worse) villains.

Comic book creators and fans credit many reasons for this shift in thinking. Concepts and worldviews like Postmodernism and Deconstructionism are often blamed. Many also place the blame on events like the Vietnam War, Watergate, the me-ism of the 80's, and the Roe vs. Wade decision. Regardless of the reasons, the days of the innocent hero (i.e., the hero who acted nobly simply because it was the right thing to do, because he valued life and felt it worthy to be saved) seemed doomed.

Then came the 90's. Something in the grim and gritty, psychosis-driven mindset snapped. Fun came back to comics. Not in droves, to be sure, and it didn't commit a comics-wide genocide of "heroes" like the Punisher, Hitman, and Wolverine, but it was noticeable, nonetheless. Superman returned from the dead, his sense of honor intact. Bruce Wayne's back healed, and he reclaimed the mantle of the bat from his tainted and flawed successor. Fun-loving teen heroes (once the bane of comics readers) popped up again, some of them even as (Heavens no!) sidekicks. Captain America was restored to his iconic role as American patriotism personified under the care of Mark Waid and Ron Garney.

And then, like a thought that needed to be said and couldn't be contained, came Kingdom Come. As a statement on the state of heroism, it spoke volumes about how the superhero world could become if left to the villains and tainted heroes. But, it also made quite a statement on the redemptive power of good.

So, where does that leave us now?

Curious as to how current comics creators saw today's market, I emailed some of them a list of three questions concerning the future of the innocent hero. Nine responded: DC's Mike Carlin, Jim Valentino (Shadowhawk, A Touch of Silver), Brian Augustyn (Flash, X-O Manowar), Tom Bierbaum (Legion of Super Heroes), Kurt Busiek (Astro City, Thunderbolts, Ninjak), Marv Wolfman (The New Teen Titans), John Ostrander (The Spectre), Phil Jimenez (Tempest), and Jerry Ordway (The Power of Shazam).

Do you feel there is still room for "innocent heroes," or must even heroes be tainted in some way in order to be believable (i.e., marketable)?

Bierbaum: The current comic book market is reaching an extremely narrow demographic, and within that demographic, there generally hasn't been much interest in innocent heroes. But there's no reason why different twists can't work, even for that very narrow audience (i.e., some of the characters in Astro City and Batman Adventures). To us [Tom and his wife Mary], there's nothing less believable about an innocent hero because the world has plenty of people who live daily up to a very high standard of behavior. These people aren't especially common, but that's exactly what makes them interesting, appropriate, believable models for ficticious "heroes."

Wolfman: I think heroes can be both innocent and be real (i.e., have problems, etc.). The fact that you can make them real to some minor degree allows the characters to see the world as a place worth saving. If they're just dark and depressing then I'm not interested in writing about them, but if they see a dark world around them and still believe they can make a difference, then they're innocent and optimistic, which I like.

Ostrander: Having a character who is without flaw is reassuring when you're a kid; you need that. We tend to see our parents that way (happened in my age as well). As you grow older, you can no longer accept that because you're thinking on your own. You re-examine your heroes and your parents and find feet of clay (happened in my age as well). You NEED to find that. For characters to be believable, they need to be flawed. We need to find flaws. They also reflect more correctly our OWN positions, our own situations.

Carlin: DC does TONS of innocent heroes: Impulse and Captain Marvel and friends come to mind. Sure, there's room for everything out there!

Busiek: I think there's plenty of room for what you call innocent heroes, from Flash to Superman to many of the Astro City heroes to Iron Fist in Heroes For Hire, and more beyond them.

Augustyn: Yes. In fact, I think the pendulum is swinging back toward the direction of the innocent hero. Characters like Superman, Flash and Captain America have all experienced recent new popularity, and all are lighter in tone than the grim and gritty characters who've reigned for so long. More and more new, lighter heroes are being introduced all the time, so I think the trend is building. The days of the cynical hero may be numbered.

Ordway: I still feel strongly that there must BE room for innocent heroes, or all is lost. There's nothing to prevent an innocent from having feet of clay, or some other flaw, you know. Furthermore, I think an innocent hero provides a role model for even the most jaded readers. Pessimism might be the way of thinking these days, but optimism is what got past generations looking ahead to a better day, or better life for their own children.

Jimenez: I definitely feel there's room for heroes who are not grim and gritty, bearing razor sharp talons or guns as weapons in their fight against crime. Without a doubt, these have always been the characters that bored or disinterested me the most (Wolverine, Sabretooth, Cable, etc.). I actually believe that heroes can be just and good (I question the definition of this word "innocent") and still be desirable as heroes -- it's all in the way they're played. However, I think characters "tainted" by something -- not necessarily evil or violence but characters who are not solely good and pure -- are far more interesting for the sheer fact that giving them such flaws makes them multi-faceted and, therefore, playable on many more levels (same with the villains -- the most interesting villains are those that have a very human motivation or love -- like Mystique's love for her daughter Rogue, or Magneto's actions for mutantkind based on his past as a Jewish detainee in a Nazi death camp). Singularly good (innocent) or bad (evil) characters get real boring, real fast.

Valentino: Heroism implies the act of placing the welfare of others above one's own welfare. Therefore, in order for there to be heroes, by their very definition they must be innocent (as you're using the term). Whether or not they will succeed on a commercial level is an entirely different question.

What do you believe helped bring on the era of the anti-hero and diminish the comic-reading public's interest in innocent heroes?

Bierbaum: In general, I feel that super-hero comics were once almost exclusively a juvenile medium and they gradually have become almost exclusively an adolescent medium. Adolescents tend to enjoy breaking away from and rejecting the more innocent pleasures of their earlier years, thus the innocence of the old heroes became a target very quickly, especially when they're perceived as the heroes of an older generation.

Ostrander: Essentially, the anti-hero arose partially in response to what was happening out in what we laughingly call the "real world" and the need, every once in a while, to "deconstruct" our heroes. We need to debunk our own myths every once in a while to re-examine the myths themselves, find out what still has validity, and the re-construct those heroes (or make new ones) who more accurately reflect our group social conciousness, a gestalt ethic of our society. Deconstruction has definite values and importance but we can't just get stuck there and, I think, by and large people don't. To stay stuck in the deconstuctionist mode is to invite cynicism and nihilism, usually of a very shallow mode. It leads to the concept that attitude is more important than thought, than belief. It's not more important; it's just easier. Having an attitude requires neither thought nor belief nor any real work; it just strikes a pose. And, ultimately, that's shallow and vain and, for most people, not enough. I resent that "Gen-X" has been depicted, more often than not, as being just attitude. Those of Gen-X whom I know may play with attitudes but there's also more depth to them. And they want more depth to the characters they read -- and that includes comics.

Jimenez: I think the general feeling across the country that not everything is sweetness and light -- that there are evil, greedy people that hurt others, that people we were supposed to admire and trust (priests, policeman, the president) are, in many cases, the greatest violators of decency, and therefore, innocence -- helped lead to this age of nihilism and anti-hero as hero. Further, when you understand that America itself is founded on an inherent injustice -- the destruction of the indigenous peoples here, and the slavery of others who helped build the nation -- you begin to understand the dubious reaction readers have to characters like Superman and Captain America and what they represent. And, of course, anti-heroes are generally more interesting to read about -- John Constantine, for example, a nefarious rogue with a checkered past, is amazing because he still acts, for the most part, heroically. Superman, on the other hand, is fairly one note.

Ordway: I believe movies played a big role in popularizing anti-heroes, starting with Dirty Harry, and the like. I spent my teen years seeing nothing but that kind of movie in theaters, movies where the hero dies, or movies with the main character doing whatever it took to get the bad guy. Then, in the early eighties, comics pros like Frank Miller on Daredevil started toying with motivations in long established heroes. Also, the influx of UK writers, starting with Alan Moore, brought realism to character motivations, and stories that made the simplistic comics of my youth seem empty and shallow. Let me state that I enjoy the work of these folks, but really, after Watchman, everyone in comics had to rethink their work.

Wolfman: "Innocent heroes" means heroes who don't reflect anything but childish optimism. I think as we grew up to some degree we saw you could still see the world clearly but believe you can do something to fix it. In comics, Spider-Man was certainly the first anti-hero. However literature predates that by centuries. Also, the counter-culture of the 1960s helped usher in the anti-hero because we saw the world wasn't exactly what we'd been told it was. There is nothing wrong with this.

Augustyn: The times, I suppose. The eighties was a very cynical, selfish decade and popular entertainment reflected that. As we move through the nineties a lot of folks feel adrift and searching for something. I think that "lost generation," initially fell easily into the cynicism of the eighties, and embraced the nihilistic anti-heroes out of some sort of sense that, while negative, at least these guys were consistent. But, I think the definition of heroism is shifting back to a more traditional one. Heroes are heroes again, and even some formerly grim and gritty heroes are lightening up some -- ala, Batman (particularly the Batman of the movies). There's only so much angst anyone can digest, after all -- entertainment should offer escape from everyday woes, not validation of them.

Valentino: Rambo, video games like Mortal Kombat, the declining trust in institutions from government to corporations. There are any number of culprits.

Carlin: What brought it in was that ten years ago, it was different -- eventually it wasn't different anymore and the ol' innocent was different. It's a vicious circle!

Busiek: I don't think their interest was diminished -- the era that saw the rise of the anti-hero was a popular era for both Superman and Spider-Man. However, I think that whenever any status quo gets familar, then readers respond favorably to stuff that rebels against the status quo, as Wolverine did, as Dark Knight did, and so forth. They were different, and thus they stood out.

With the popularity of books like Leave It To Chance, Impulse, Robin, Captain America, etc., and the return to a tighter tone in the Spider-Man books, do you feel that comic book readers are becoming more receptive to innocent heroes? If so, what do you think has contributed to the change?

Augustyn: Yes. As I said, we're actually at the crest of a groundswell that's been building for some time. The titles you mentioned are perfect examples, but Astro City, Quantum and Woody, Ash, Green Lantern, Justice League, Savage Dragon, Alan Moore's take on Supreme, and tons of other books are reaching back to reclaim the sense of fun that comics used to exemplify -- while continuing to be contemporary in every other sense of the word. Keep in mind, that Waid and Ross's Kingdom Come, was, in a way, a commentary on this very tension between innocence and cynicism -- and a damned hopeful and positive story, despite the very real tragedy that pervades much of the early chapters. I think the times, again -- and the general mood of the country -- is in part why this change is under way. Even those not on the conservative side of the political spectrum agree that the time for negativism and cynicism is past, and everyone longs for a resurgence of "good values," however you may define that. In general, I think NOW is a good -- and fun -- time to be creating comics.

Busiek: The grim-and-gritty heroes are no longer different; they've been around for over ten years, and readers are ready for something else.

Jimenez: As with any medium, comics work in cycles. Obviously, the popularity of anti-heroes and busty heroines in recent years was a reaction to a plethora of characters projecting "goodness and light" in an age where that seemed hypocritical. However, people are starving for examples of goodness and just living in this society, and, I think, have grown tired of seeing this constant barrage of darkness and sadness and gloom. People want to believe in hope, and in goodness, and I think that they will search for characters out there that bring them such feelings. But I would never want to see only one type of character or the other -- I think in this medium there's room for both Leave it to Chance and for Preacher, and for each to be entertaining, inspiring, and, perhaps, enlightening.

Ostrander: Part of the success of the books you mention is that a) they're awfully well written; b) they're FUN to read; and c) they make us FEEL good. Anti-heroes rarely make you feel good. It may be a wish to reach back more to childhood, when things were simpler. It may also be an evolving process; that we're ready to accept innocent characters, characters who believe in something, because we are ourselves, as individuals and as a society, are willing to believe again, having gone through a necessary deconstruction phase. Or I may just be an old gasbag who is rambling on too long and making more out of things than they really are.

Bierbaum: The market has shrunk and shrunk, so it's the real die-hard readers who are sticking around in greater percentages than the casual readers. I'm guessing that's meant a greater and greater percentage of the market is being made up of older readers, baby boomers, who're more interested in recapturing the feel of the comics of their youth, when comics were a juvenile medium, than in continuing to rehash themes of adolescent alienation and rebellion. In most cases, these innocent books may be selling no more than they would have five and 10 years ago, but now those sales figures look pretty good, because there aren't as many younger readers around to build up the sales of more adolescent-themed books. Also, of course, we've just reached a point where the more cynical approach has been done to death and people are simply weary of it and ready for a change.

Ordway: I think that the popularity of the books you mentioned is more a reflection on their execution, than on their tone. There is always a pendulum effect, in entertainment, where, if things get overly dark, then a light movie comes along to start a new wave. Same with comics. Please mention Power of Shazam, and the Batman/Superman cartoon books in your list as well, as they provide something for younger readers to get started in on comics with. That's the key to dwindling readership -- you need new kids to pick up the hobby, when the older ones go off on other endeavors. Without newsstands, where comics are easier to come by, that task is more difficult, but it still needs to happen.

Wolfman: I think all the books you mention have a "real" world, but with characters who are optimistic. There is a big difference between optimism and innocence.

Valentino: I think one must consider just HOW "popular" these books actually are in today's marketplace. What I see when I look at the top ten is that it is dominated by X-books, Spawn, Witchblade, etc... I doubt any of these fit your definition, so I call into suspicion your whole argument here. There really has not BEEN a change in the tastes of the marketplace. The day Phone Bone, Chance Falconer and others of that ilk replace the Lobos and Wolverines, we can say there has been change.

(©1997 Sean Taylor)

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Nugget #48 -- Whose and What's Sake?

So yes, writing for art's sake can be freeing, and writing for sale's sake can be limiting, but the two can comfortably co-exist within a writer who strives to write the best stories within the parameters the market has officially or unofficially set.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Dropping Science on Yo' Fiction -- A Talk with Stephanie Osborn

Stephanie Osborn, the Interstellar Woman of Mystery, is a veteran of 20+ years in the space program, with graduate/undergraduate degrees in astronomy, physics, chemistry and mathematics, is “fluent” in several more, including geology and anatomy. She has authored, co-authored, or contributed to some two dozen books, including the celebrated Burnout: The Mystery of Space Shuttle STS-281 and the Displaced Detective series.

Since you're the only writer I know who is actually a rocket scientist, how do you feel about the weird blending that happens when science fiction meets science fact?

I guess it depends. If it's obviously space opera or the equivalent, and it's well written, I'm up for suspending disbelief and enjoying a good romp. If it's really badly written, I want to fling something. Preferably something hard and massive. (Those who have heard me discourse on certain “science fiction” films will know what I mean.)

But a well-written hard science fiction book (or TV show, or film) is a treat, and can often inspire brainstorming as to how we might make it a real thing.

One of the theories you built from in your writing is the idea of parallel universes by way of String Theory and M Theory. For those of us who haven't been through the wormhole with Morgan Freeman and back again, could you explain the difference between those theories?

Ha! Well, “let's start at the very beginning; it's a very good place to start,” as Maria said (sang) in The Sound of Music. So. Most of the physics that the average person knows revolves around 4 dimensions: length, width, height, and time. But as “modern physics” (including relativity theory, quantum mechanics, and more) began to develop, we began to realize that the various fundamental forces of nature (nuclear forces -- there are two, the weak and strong nuclear forces; the electric force; the magnetic force; and gravitational force) could be unified, at least in part -- which is to say we found a way to relate them mathematically so that they can be described in the same way and their interactions readily predicted. Everybody's heard of electromagnetics; this was the first pair of forces to be unified, back in the late 1800s by James Clerk Maxwell. By now, all of those forces have been unified — except gravity. There seems to be something different about gravity, because it's not behaving properly per any of the theories. Some scientists speculate it may not even be a force in and of itself, but rather the response of mass to...something else. It's the “something else” that we're trying to figure out.

Anyway, all of this led to the development of something called cosmic string theory. This adds a new structure to the universe in addition to the particles of matter that we're used to: an infinitely long, infinitely dense string. (Imagine grabbing a black hole in your hands and jerking it out into an infinite string, and you pretty much got it. The “energy ribbon” from the movie, Star Trek: Generations was in essence a cosmic string, although the whole business about a world inside it invokes some other theories.) These probably do exist. Maybe. But that theory didn't explain all the observations.

So then they added a few more dimensions to the 4 we know, and came up with superstring theory. That's kinda like an interdimensional cosmic string. And at this point we start to realize that other universes, parallel continuums, could exist. But it still didn't explain all the observations.

So then M theory was developed. It requires at least 11 dimensions, possibly as many as 40, or even more. And it introduces another structure: a membrane, or “brane” for short (hence the M in the name of the theory).

There are several different versions of M theory, five to be precise, developed by five different teams of researchers, and it is looking like just maybe this might do the trick. Because while no one version of the theory explains all the observed facts, together they appear to do so. So if we can combine all five, we think we got it. And so we wind up with three basic multiversal structures:

1) closed-loop strings, kinda like Cheerios, that behave like particles called bosons, which carry the fundamental forces and can float between all the other structures, across dimensions;

2) bound, open strings, basically enhanced superstrings whose ends are connected to the third structure,

3) branes.

And it almost certainly invokes parallel universes in the “bulk,” or multiverse.

And lo and behold, some of the stuff that M theory predicts looks to be showing up in our observations. (So rather than trying to find the observations in the theory, we now are starting to get things in the theory to go look for.) There's even some very small nonuniformity in the background radiation of the universe that may — MAY, mind you, it’s not definite yet, and a lot of scientists think it's BS — indicate “bruises” where other universes have “bumped” ours. The imagery for that is pretty cool, by the way.

And it also makes for some fun science to play around with and extrapolate for science fiction novels! I've invoked it two different ways in two different series: the Point series with Travis S. Taylor (first book out, Extraction Point; I’m trying to shake him loose to write the other books with me), and the Displaced Detective series. (There’s going to be a kind of related series to Displaced Detective soon, over at another publishing house. The editor in chief of Pro Se Productions is a Displaced Detective fan, and has contracted me to write the Sherlock Holmes: Gentleman Aegis series, chronicling the adventures of “my” Holmes with his Watson in his original continuum’s Victorian Era. I’m working on the first book now, Sherlock Holmes and the Mummy’s Curse.)

You've mixed science with Sherlock and done so admirably. Are there other historical or scientific characters from real life you're itching to work with in fiction or other physics theories that are influencing you creative juices at the moment?

Thank you most kindly! I try hard.

Oh, I've brought in several scientists from the Victorian era in various works. I've used Nikola Tesla no less than three times in different works, one of which is still looking for a publishing home! That latter one is a YA steampunk novel, with a planned series behind it, and it pulls in quite a few historical personages in thinly-veiled form.

I actually kind of developed my own “science” in the Cresperian Saga. The first book of that series, Human By Choice, was written by Travis and another writer, Darrell Bain; I didn’t have anything to do with it. They invoked an alien race, the advanced Cresperians, whose science was so advanced it was almost magic to us. They had something that best translated into English as an “unreality drive,” but neither Travis nor Darrell had worked out the mechanism behind it. Well, Travis bowed out due to heavy workload for book 2, The Y Factor, and the publisher tapped me as his protégé to step in and work with Darrell as his co-author. By book 3, The Cresperian Alliance, Darrell — who is in his 80s — decided the character list was getting too big to deal with, so he bowed out and I took the lead. And I found, with the plot I wanted to write for that book, I needed to know how that “unreality drive” thingie worked. And neither of ‘em could tell me. So I sat down and racked my brains, and finally came up with something. It feels a little hokey to me, but it's still kind of a fun concept. It works like this:

There is a concept in more advanced mathematics called i. Now, i is an “imaginary number,” and is the square root of -1. The reason it is considered imaginary is that any time you multiply two negative numbers together, the solution is a positive number. Therefore, for instance,

(-2)2 = 4, not -4.


(-2) x (-3) = 6, not -6.


i2 = -1.

It violates the multiplicative rule, thus it is “imaginary.”

Now, interestingly, i tends to crop up in physics equations from time to time, and generally physicists take those “imaginary” terms in the equation and toss them, as not representing anything in the “real world.”

But the Cresperians had supposedly discovered that they DID represent actual phenomena in the multiverse, and had taken those terms in the equations and harnessed the phenomena they predicted, and this became the foundation for their propulsion systems and some of their power generation.

You cannot imagine how I racked my brains to come up with that explanation...

What advice do you have for non-scientists who are looking to use real-world science in their work?

Find a scientist who knows his/her stuff, who is willing to work with you, and USE 'em! Make the scientist your advisor, your teacher, your beta reader — and above all, LISTEN to 'em. I can't tell you how annoyed it makes me when another author consults me about the science to do a particular thing in a book s/he is writing — and quite a few do — and then when I explain the science and how to do it in the book, s/he blows me off with a, “Nah, I wanna do it THIS way.” When my solution would have been just as simple, not that different, but the modification of only a few details would have made it technically accurate. (Frankly, it makes me wonder if the writer really cares enough to get it right, or is just lazy, or whatever. A harsh thought, but if, for the same number of yet-unwritten words, you could make it technically accurate, and not affect your story, why wouldn’t you? Not to mention the ones who present me with their story concept and ask, “Will that work?” So I spend an hour or better explaining why it would NOT work, only to get, “Meh. I’mma do it anyway.” Then why did you bother asking me? You just wasted a big chunk of time for both of us, when I could have gotten in several hundred words in my own book.)

And then, at the end, make sure to thank him/her in your author notes.

 Editor's Note: For more information about Stephanie's work, visit her website.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Writer Will Take Your Questions Now #322 -- Reflections on the Author as a Young Man

What were you like at school? Were you good at English?

I guess, yeah, I was pretty strong at English and writing during school, but even then, I wasn't interested in writing. Or in thinking onto paper much, for that matter.

Grammar and structure, on the other hand, have always been important to me. I was one of those kids who went around correcting people's grammar and reciting ad naseum sayings my mom had told me (such as "you and I, don't put yourself first" -- which caused no end of confusion regarding "I" and "me").

My storytelling grew out of not my proficiency in English and grammar though, but instead from my ability to play with my action figures all wrong. Han Solo was never Han Solo, nor was the giant Mazinga Shogun Warrior robot a metallic hero. Nope. Han became an evil wizard and the robot his obedient golem, and the Jawa and his Fisher Price sidekicks were the heroes who had to save Leia and Luke from bad guys.

I told all kinds of stories. I just didn't do it on paper.

When did I make the move to stories on paper? Let's save that one for another day, shall we?

Sunday, April 19, 2015

PulpFest and the New Fictioneers

It’s called new pulp – stories by modern writers who recreate the style of fiction that appeared in the pulp magazines of yore. Back then, the authors who labored for the rough paper industry liked to call themselves scribes, word-slingers, penny-a-worders, and, perhaps the most favored term of all, fictioneers. Join PulpFest as we celebrate today’s fictioneers—the authors writing the new pulp fiction.

If you’re a writer who has been inspired by the work of yarn-spinners such as Raymond Chandler, Lester Dent, Frederick Faust, Walter B. Gibson, Edmond Hamilton, Robert E. Howard, H. Bedford-Jones, Henry Kuttner, H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and countless others who churned out commercial fiction for the pulp market, PulpFest is looking for you!

Every year since 2009, we’ve featured readings by some of the best writers of today’s pulp fiction. Jim Beard, Christopher Paul Carey, Win Scott Eckert, Ron Fortier, William Patrick Maynard, Will Murray, and many others have read excerpts from their work, showcasing a wide range of exciting new fiction. Afterward, they’ve talked with their audiences, answering questions, fielding comments, discussing works-in-progress, and selling their books. Both our writers and their audiences have loved these sessions.

We call these hour-long events our “New Fictioneers” readings and we’re hoping to have some great ones at PulpFest 2015. As we have for the last six years, PulpFest is seeking writers for its New Fictioneers program, scheduled for Friday, August 14th, and Saturday, August 15th. If you’re a writer of contemporary genre fiction who would like to participate in this year’s festivities, please send an email to PulpFest marketing and programming director Mike Chomko at Let him know that you’d like to be one of our celebrated New Fictioneers. Mike is seeking four writers to present their fiction at this year’s convention.

In the past, we’ve selected our readers on a first-come, first-served basis. This year, given our dual themes celebrating H. P. Lovecraft and WEIRD TALES and the Thrilling Group of pulp magazines, we’re going to try something different. Although the sooner writers apply to be our 2015 New Fictioneers, the better, priority will be given to those creators who have written fiction inspired by the work of Lovecraft, the Cthulhu Mythos, WEIRD TALES and such writers as Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and Seabury Quinn, or the pulp offerings of Standard Magazines – the Black Bat, Captain Future, the Ghost, Lone Eagle, Masked Rider, Phantom Detective, and so on. Since PulpFest 2015 will also be exploring Standard Comics--also known as Better Publications and Nedor Publishing–creators of works featuring such characters as the Black Terror, Doc Strange, Fighting Yank, Kara the Jungle Princess, Miss Masque, and Pyroman will also be given priority. However, all new-pulp or writers of supernatural fiction are welcome to apply.

In order to give the convention time to prepare its marketing of this year’s New Fictioneers, all reader applications for PulpFest 2015 need to be submitted by June 1, 2015. Space is limited – only four readers will be selected for this year’s convention. If you’re writing contemporary genre fiction, we look forward to hearing from you.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Submissions Sought for 12-part Sherlock Holmes Novella Series

While Sir Arthur Conan Doyle left this earthly realm on July 7, 1930, his character of Sherlock Holmes has never been more alive.  Through the current films and TV shows starring the great detective, his popularity only increases.  Publishers such as Gasogene Books and MX Publishing focus mainly on new books about the great detective, and many more presses have at least one new Sherlock Holmes book in their catalogues.  Now another publisher has an opportunity for pastiche writers to compose new tales for the Sherlock Holmes canon.

Authors Needed

18thWall Publishing is creating a 12 part Sherlock Holmes novella series called The Science of Deduction that will be released in 2016.  One title will be released each month that year, and then in December, all 12 novellas will be bundled into a complete anthology. The stories themselves must be novellas of 15,000 - 30,000 words in length, with the author's voice and narrative style coming through.

"People rarely realize how short the Sherlock Holmes novels are," explained James Bojaciuk,  CEO Duobus of 18thWall.

"A Study in Scarlet and The Valley of Fear are short novellas (padded out by long memories of the United States), and The Sign of the Four is a longish one. Only The Hound of the Baskervilles is, as they say, feature length -- but even then it is very short indeed. Yet when I look at my Sherlock Holmes shelves, it is overwhelmed with three-, four-hundred page novels and dozens of short story collections. I'd like to reclaim the novella form for Sherlock Holmes, which, personally, I think is the best length for his adventures."

Authors seeking to submit a story for the series should note that submissions may be traditional or can feature a Holmes of an alternative universe. "We're especially keen on well-researched alternate history," said Mr. Bojaciuk. "All the more so if this alternate history is in the vein of Kelly Hale's "Black Alice" (which reimagines Holmes and Watson as Enlightenment Era gentlemen modeled on Samuel Johnson and his own Boswell), or Michael Kurland's "Four Hundred Slaves" (which examines what Holmes and his biographer would have been like if they were Roman citizens)."

Some Rules Apply

While writers have freedom to explore a unique take on Sherlock Holmes, there are some strict ground rules.  There can be no erotica, no parodies, and no tales which disrespect the great detective in anyway.  As stated on the 18thWall website, "please keep the characters as close to their canonical counterparts as possible. Sherlock Holmes is not a werewolf; Watson did not murder his wife; Mycroft is not Moriarty’s lieutenant; Professor Moriarty is not a tulpa. This stance on canonicity extends through political opinions, sexuality, biography, and characterization. You can work outside these bounds, but do note that this may or may not be a harder sell to the editor."

Submissions are due to 18thWall Publishing by November 1st, 2015.  For more information, please see the 18thWall website.  Authors retain full rights to their characters and stories. And for those of you stuck on where to start a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, Mr. Bojaciuk  did say, "While not outré at all, I'd love to see war stories (particularly in the First World War) with Holmes and Watson." 

Story submissions can be sent to  Happy writing!

For full submission guidelines, visit:

Friday, April 17, 2015

Horror Is Art!

Online horror blog, review and news site, announces the publication of its first ever book, HORROR IS ART! Authored by one of The Blood Shed’s staff writers, The Film Phreak, HORROR IS ART! is a collection of essays and interviews discussing examples of horror cinema as art, not just "exploitation" Horror movies famous and obscure are featured.

Interviews include Ari Lehman (Jason Voorhees, Friday the 13th), Teri McMinn (Pam, Texas Chain Saw Massacre) and Ed Guinn (also TCSM), Dan Yeager (Texas Chainsaw 3D) and director Jim Wynorski (Chopping Mall). Also included are essays on Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Texas Chainsaw 3D, the Friday the 13th franchise, Rob Zombie, David Cronenberg, Cabin in the Woods, Cannibal Holocaust, Guillermo del Toro, Roman Polanski's Repulsion, Anderzej Zulawski's Possession (starring Sam Neill), Jess Franco's A Virgin Among the Living Dead, indie directors Henrique Couto and Dustin Wayde Mills, A Serbian Film and more.

HORROR IS ART! is available in an 8.5 x 11 trade paperback edition and runs 236 pages. Presented and published by The Blood Shed and Book Devil Press via CreateSpace, the book is now available for purchase at $14.95 retail. It may be ordered by visiting:

The Film Phreak’s HORROR IS ART! will soon be available at in both print and Kindle ebook editions. For updates, keep your eyes peeled at,, and

The Film Phreak lives in a cave in Southeast Arkansas where he terrifies locals and argues vehemently with his neighbor, the Fauk Monster, who fled his home territory due to all the Legend of Boggy Creek fans. When not devouring tourists and the aforementioned locals, The Film Phreak is busy devouring horror films and other cinematic delicacies, especially the works of David Fincher, Tim Burton and Quentin Tarantino. He digs Archie and other comics, and also books without pictures. He drives around listening to Britney Spears and other dance pop, plus hip-hop, R&B, reggae/dub, industrial, electronica, rock and, of course, metal.) He does not generally like Bigfoot movies, which is why he argues with his neighbor, who is hairy and very vain. Despite being a Luddite, he has an online presence as a staff writer at, as well as a few blogs, including, and Email him at

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Time After Time -- Writing in "Period"

This week's Writer Roundtable is another from the open call for ideas and topics. With many of the writers I know and love being period writers, this one really grabbed my attention when a reader suggested it. So keep those suggestions coming and we'll keep sending them to the roundtable for the peanut gallery to respond to.

Do you tend to write in a particular time period? If so, why are you drawn to it? If not, what keeps you popping around from time to time?

Robert Krog:
I don't gravitate to a particular historical time period but I do tend toward, when I'm not writing for a particular story call, to a setting with a generally ancient world feel to it. However, my work bounces around from settings that are ancient, to medieval, to modern, to futuristic, to indeterminate.

I started reading fantasy at an early age so ancient and medieval settings pop to mind very easily. I studied ancient history for years, so that setting edges out the fantasy one by a slim margin. But, I'm a fan of many genres and settings, so no one time period or setting predominates. Between that and writing to particular story calls I have pretty well eliminated the tendency to fall into a rut and write stories in just one such setting.  

Stephanie Osborn: The two periods in which I find myself writing most often are "near future" and Victorian era. I figured, when I started writing SF, that I'd do a lot of far future stuff, but I actually don't. See, I write hard SF, because scientist here. That means that the science in the story should at least be plausible, even if the extrapolation eventually proves incorrect. The farther ahead you go, the harder it is to do anything like a reasonable extrapolation of current cutting edge science, and have it turn out semi-realistic. I've played some games with advanced cultures contacting ours, and one novel I wrote with Travis S. Taylor jumps around in time a bit, but in general, if it isn't Victorian, it's pretty close to the modern day.

Since I'm fond of a) steampunk and b) Sherlock Holmes, I do a fair bit of writing in the late Victorian era too. (1880ish to around 1900) I think it's just a cool timeframe. Very elegant, a wide blend of prim-and-proper and ain't-got-no-clue-guv'nor from which to draw characters, and SO VERY much science and engineering going on! A significant chunk of our "modern" physics was being developed during this period, much of which was then confirmed in WWII's Manhattan Project and the space program of the 1960s. Just a fun time to dink around in.

Mark Bousquet: I'm drawn to the mid-to-late 19th century. I don't write there exclusively, but it's where Gunfighter Gothic is set and so I tend to come back to those characters and that universe. I like that time period and I like those characters, so there's always two reasons to jump back to the 1860s and muck around.

Bobby Nash: I'm all over the map with the time periods I've written. My preference is to do stories set in modern times so I can explore the world outside my window. Of course, as I also am a work-for-hire and tie-in author as well, I often find myself working on characters that are set in a specific time period by the publisher. This is especially true when it comes to writing pre-existing pulp characters. Many of these pulp characters and books have become period pieces, with the publishers preferring to keep them in the time frame that their original stories took place. That is, of course their right so when I write Domino Lady, The Spider, Green Hornet, Ghost Gal, or whichever pulp character is set in a specific time, that's the time period I place that story. Sometimes I think it would be fun to see what adventures Domino Lady found herself in during the WWII years. I suspect she would have made herself useful to the war effort.

After spending time in the past, it is nice to step back into present day and have characters use modern technology.

Walter Bosley: I prefer the post-Civil War 19th Century and early 20th Century up to World War 2. Society had not jettisoned elegance and technology was not so advanced as to make people lazy. There was still some mystery in and about the world. When I write in the present, it's either in a time travel story demonstrating the contrast of how today sucks, yesterday remains still more desirable, or tomorrow can't get here soon enough; or it's just for convenience but the story will still be a throwback in style.

Nancy Hansen: I do a lot of quasi-medieval stuff in my fantasy line, anything that is before gunpowder. But I'm really all over the place these days, with a buccaneer era (mid-late 1600s) novel series, a modern day PI series, and a children's book series that is contemporary and has magical otherworlds (including economies based on chocolate and genie GPS units) as well. I've done period pieces in short fiction. So I don't limit myself that strictly. The project has to interest me, and then I'll worry about how to set it in the proper time period.

Erwin K. Roberts: I've written the most in the so-called "Pulp Era" in the 1930's and '40's. But that's largely because I've used a lot of public domain characters from that timeframe. Dr. Watson and the Masked Rider in the wild west came fairly easy for me given the huge number of radio, TV, and movie westerns and northerns I absorbed while growing up.

I.A. Watson: I write a lot of Victorian-era stuff, but that's mainly because that's the era SHERLOCK HOLMES, CONSULTING DETECTIVE is set in. These days the Victorian period (which was pretty much the US Wild West period) has become a fictionalised world of its own, so it's challenging to keep it "real"; one has to remember that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wasn't writing historic fiction, he was telling contemporary mystery tales. That era was the crucible of modern culture and civilisation. It's where the shadows of the past meet the coming modern world. It's the first time period where society and people's reactions are recognisably like our own, making it a great mirror through which to see ourselves and a lens by which to focus on what has changed.

I've also done four books of ROBIN HOOD stories, which are set in a fictional version of 12th century England, the middle of the mediaeval period of knights and castles. That time in England was a fierce mix of shifting and solidifying power bases, a hundred and twenty-five years after the brutal conquest and ethnic cleansing of the Saxons by the Norman invaders. The stratification of society, where 80% of the population are serfs, effectively slaves tied to a geographical location, the independent and authoritative church institution, and the overwhelming might of feudal overlords makes it a situation ideal to apply a laughing resistance-leader bandit to make everything change.

My most recent historical was a two volume ST GEORGE AND THE DRAGON set in 4th century North Africa. The appeal there was that it was a time and especially a place I knew less about. It required me to learn something and make some creative choices. If there was an historical St George he was a Roman knight, of the later Roman legions that had moved on from the "traditional" footsoldiers with auxiliaries that we generally think of. He lived at a time when the empire was crumbling. Rome was marginalised. Byzantium or some other eastern city was the capital. The Empire formally recognised a state religion but was overrun by Christians, Mithraists, eastern mystery cultists and others. The formerly rich and fertile Libya was suffering from climate change and rebellion, gradually devolving from its former glories like the dustbowl towns of depression-era America. It seemed to me to be an interesting place to tell a dragon story.

I've done other historical works as well, in part because that's the period I was asked to use because that's when the characters were active -- Gideon Cain, Demon Hunter (18th century Europe), airman detective Richard Knight and the Zeppelin crew of Airship 27 (pre WW2), Semi-Dual (pre-great crash 1920s), Hawkeye the Mohican (Anglo-French conflict in colonial America), Sinbad (Caliphate-era Middle East), Armless O'Neill (1930s Congo), and some other stories due for my WOMEN OF MYTH anthology in August 2015. In many cases the setting is essential to the plot. In others the setting is essential to the mood. Some character4s can only exist in certain times and places.

Lee Houston Jr.: I tend to go to whatever time period the story dictates. If I'm drawn to any specific time period, I would say the 1960s/1970s because that's basically my childhood. Despite such serious issues like the multiple assassinations, the Vietnam war, Watergate, etc; there was also a lot of positive aspects of those 20 years like the original Woodstock Music Festival, the Apollo 11 moon landing, the bicentennial, etc; that I would either love to experience to begin with or relive.

Allan Gilbreath: I am a complete hack -- I write what is on the story request.

When you begin to write a period story, how to you begin? Research? Just diving in? Watching documentaries (don't laugh, I've done this for inspiration)?

Stephanie Osborn: Actually, the documentaries -- and sometimes even well-done period fiction films -- are very good ways to get a feel for the dialects and lingo. I was having trouble getting the hang of phrasing and speech pattern for a rural Englishman, and my editor tagged me onto a British film -- can't recall the name, but Ian McKellan was in it -- where the characters were basically the Brit version of rednecks. Half an hour in, I was writing the dialect like a champ.

But in general, yes, I dive head-first into the research. I may not have all of the history accurate in a given story, but by golly if it isn't, it's because I did it DELIBERATELY. (Yes, I have a steampunk novel I'm shopping, where I played fast and loose with a few historical events just for fun. I figure, I'm playing with an alternate timeline as it is, I can "adjust" a few things here and there for more excitement.) And there's a ton of stuff I study that sometimes amounts to only one or two words in the manuscript, but they're the PROPER terminology for the situation. I spend probably as much time researching history, culture, and such, as I do the science. Sometimes more, depending on the science -- for a Victorian setting, I already know most of the science and engineering.

Robert Krog: I generally dive in, if I am already somewhat familiar with the era in question, and research as necessary along the way. While I don't write anything with the intention that it be strict historical fiction, I do research so that the setting seems close enough to an actual historical setting, if you follow me. I am an historian, and one would suppose that I'd love to play around in accurate historical settings, but the truth is that I'm afraid I'll do that and get important or even minor details wrong. For that reason, I never try write something that is in an actual historical setting, just one that resembles a particular era.

I do research as much as time allows on the era my story resembles. I've read up on the intricacies of clockwork, on the making of iron into steel, on the process of dyeing wool, etc.. I don't mind documentaries, but I always double check the assertions of such shows. The state of documentary film making is often sketchy. Documentary film makers and their publicists frequently make unfounded assertions a central point in their work in order to attract viewers.

Where one hasn't had time to do rigorous research on every aspect of life in a historical setting, even for merely pseudohistorical stories such as mine, there is the marvelous trick of deliberately vague language. If you really don't know what the clothes looked like and don't have time before the deadline to research them, and they aren't vital to the plot anyway, avoid describing them as much as possible. If the clothes are essential, you'd better make the time.

Mark Bousquet: It's usually character based. I come up with a character and a scenario and then I research to make the world of my story a more lived-in place. There are times, however, when I'll be watching a movie or a documentary and think, "That would be perfect for Character X" or "I need a character to walk in that world." George Michael once said he knew he wanted to be a songwriter when he was listening to a song and realized he would have done one particular part of that song differently. I think there's a lot of truth in that, for me. I can't read/watch a Harry Potter story and not think how I would've told this whole universe from Hermione's perspective. So if I'm watching a documentary, part of me is definitely mining it for future story possibilities.

Bobby Nash: I usually have a story idea in my head when I start so I just dive into the writing, stopping to research as I need to as I go along. It's usually the minor details that I have to look up. A few that I've run across. When were binoculars invented? When did they become available to the public? Price of a payphone in 1936? When were seaplanes invented? What was the price of gas in 1940? How would a prostitute dress in 1935?

There are certain plots that technology has rendered ineffective. In the 60's or 70's, you could have a plot where you P.I.. character uncovers an assassination plot all the way across town. He cannot get hold of his police contact on the pay phone so he rushes to get there in time to stop the shooter. That's your plot. These days, cell phones, texting, heck, even social media have made that basic plot a lot more difficult to pull off without adding another layer to it that will keep you P.I. from making contact. And yes, using "no signal" is a cop out. You have to come up with something better than that. That's one of the challenges of writing to time periods, but it's a challenge that makes the writing better, I believe.

Erwin K. Roberts: Sometimes I just dive in, if I have have an idea hit me. But, at some point, I will do research to back up what I have written. I definitely do not want to do something insane, like putting the Grand Canyon in Idaho.

Huge numbers of experts and teachers tell the writer to "Write what you know." That works, sometimes. When I agreed to do a Masked Rider story for Airship-27 I immediately remembered my son and I stoppin g for a brief visit to Devil's Tower. Ka-Blam, I decided the Robin Hood Outlaw would end up having to climb the thing a decade or two before anybody really did.

Like Sean, I have pulled fiction ideas out of documentaries. I've also been known to search a date on-line so I can use real happenings as a backdrop to the stories I tell.

Walter Bosley: The beginning of each of my stories is usually driven by the character's motivational issue or angst -- or my own.

I'll usually set a story in a period I am familiar with and the research comes in on details for authenticity, i.e. clothes, accessories, guns, ladies underthings (I know I said clothes, but it's fun to say 'ladies underthings'), food, etc etc.

A favorite research tool of mine is finding various series of historical encyclopedias popular in the 70s and 80s, like Time-Life books because they're always full of old photos from the particular era that you don't always find online. And there's something authentic about looking it up in a book in a library. After that, I'll go online and watch films from the silent era so I can see people actually in that time and moving and breathing and still alive.

I find my personal desire to be there impacts my period writing.

Nancy Hansen:  Really depends on the project, but regardless, I do a  lot of research. If there is background material on a storyline, I'll go there first, and then branch out to what the area it takes place in would have looked like, whatever vehicles, weapons, and any other props that might delineate the era. I want to get the setting right, and kind of visualize it so that I can 'see' what people are doing and how they'd move around on my canvas. So I'll dive in with a visitors guide firmly in hand.

Right now I am up to my eyeballs in the second historical fiction pirate novel in a series I'm doing for Airship 27. Previous to starting the first one, my only knowledge of pirates was from Hollywood action flicks (including those ever-popular Disney movies). I spent more hours researching material for the first one than I did writing it, because I know virtually nothing about sailing or the Caribbean of that era, which is where the stories take place. While I was wading around in there, I learned a ton about possible cargoes and treasures, how world politics of the era affected colonial government, local weather patterns, medical knowledge, even how often colonial areas changed hands between countries. There's so much more to know, because I am only just getting to the point where I can recognize ships by their rig and sails, and can barely recall what to call the darn things. I still spend a lot of time looking stuff up, poring over my growing library of pirate and sailing ship info, and just trying to wrap my brain around how things worked. At night, before drifting off to sleep, I read, and my Kindle is filled with piratey adventures. I'm now quite fond of Rafael Sabatini, who sure could tell a rousing good tale. I can also tell when an author is fudging it, because I know just enough to understand what should be going on.

Anybody have any good historical pirate documentaries to recommend?

I.A. Watson: It depends upon the period. Victoriana is reasonably easy. I'm British. My grandmother who helped raise me was a Victorian. There's a wealth of literary and scholarly sources easily available, many of them in my library downstairs. I have maps of 19th century London and the world within reach of my writing chair.

The middle ages require more research, although mostly I prefer to go to primary sources rather than textbooks that interpret them. For example I'd prefer to read the actual treatise on law attributed to Henry II’s Justiciar Ranulf de Glanvill on raptio - illegal rape (as opposed to the legal kind by husband upon wife) which sets the compensation prices and outlines the enforcements to make the rapist marry his victim than wade through modern commentaries on it. That way I form my own impressions.

When I'm out of my "periods" entirely, as with the late Roman African story I mentioned earlier, I start with what primary sources I can get. Several Roman authors wrote travelogues and descriptions of the place. The Greeks who has founded Cyrene, capital of Libya, eight hundred years earlier had also described the place. The ruins of Cyrene, at modern Slontah, are a World Heritage Site - a very endangered one, partly lost just two years ago by local bulldozing for new housing and by war damage and looting - but there's good archaeological evidence and maps dating back from Victorian-era investigations. Working from the oldest sources up to the modern commentaries helps me form my own "artistic" choices as I go. I'm not looking to write a textbook. I'm selecting those elements of history I want to weave into my story. It has to be "true" like a painting is true, not like a photograph is.

Finally, to help me assimilate what I've learned I write myself little essays. I sometimes inflict these on other people, such as an authors message list. Some got collected in my non-fiction book WHERE STORIES DWELL. Others get hurled at the reader in the form of copious footnotes to satisfy those who want to know more than should be properly told inside a fictional narrative. I can't resist a footnote.

Lee Houston Jr.: Research is very important, and a topic of debate unto itself. Depending upon the when of the story, I usually go to a book or online references. Yet I've also found that the music, movies, and television of a specific period (at least from the late 1950s onward) can convey much needed information too; like the fashions and atmosphere of the day in question.

Allan Gilbreath: Research, research, and research -- no limit to research. Other works in the time frame, online, books, and even documentaries.