Tag Archives: Case Files of Justis Fearsson

Writing-Tip Wednesday: World Building Lessons I’d Forgotten

Back in early March, I posted about creating magic systems, and said then that I expected I would post about world building at least once more over the course of the year. And so here I am, making myself a prophet (because right now making myself a profit is proving difficult [rim shot]).

I am world building again, for the first time in a while, actually. The last time I created a world whole-cloth was when I began work on the Islevale Cycle, which was several years ago. I have a completed novel that my agent and I are shopping around, but that is set in our world with only a small speculative fiction element. My other most recent work has been in the Thieftaker universe, which I developed nearly a decade ago. I’ve written a couple of Fearsson short stories, but that world even pre-dates the Thieftaker world (though the books took longer to find their way into print).

My point being that it feels a little odd to be immersed again in world building, and several times over the past few weeks I have had to remind myself of lessons I thought I had internalized long ago. So I figured I would share some of these lessons with you.

1) Begin with questions: As I said in that March post, I love world building. There is something thrilling about starting from scratch with limitless possibilities. I had forgotten, however, how overwhelming the process can feel, particularly at the outset, when ideas are amorphous and we don’t yet grasp what we need to discover about our world. And so I like to start with a series of questions, which serve to rationalize and structure my task. (This, by the way, is how I approach research as well; I see research and world building as connected parts of the same creative act.) That list of questions is long, and early on, as I learn more and more about my world, the list continues to expand, the addition of new questions outpacing my ability to answer them. Eventually, though, the questions get answered and the contours of my world — literal and figurative — come into relief.

2) Organize from the outset: I am not nearly as organized as some assume I am, or as I would like to be. Too often, my impulse is to dive into my world building and research and jot down what I find as quickly as I can. The result is haphazard to say the least. I do much better when I slow myself down from the start and make an effort to keep orderly notes. That means using Scrivener as it is meant to be used, as a catch-all for ALL world building and research. Already with this new project, I have not been as good in this regard as I would like to be. But the first step toward curing myself is recognizing that I have a problem, right? Right??

3) Consult with smart people: This new project of mine is NOT fantasy. It’s science fiction, almost space-opera-ish. I know. I can’t believe it either. But there it is. And so I know even less about my subject matter than I usually do at this stage. I have been in touch with literal rocket scientists about this stuff, and I’m learning a lot. Chances are, no matter the nature of the project we’re working on, we know someone — or we know someone who knows someone — who can help us fill in gaps in our knowledge base. Don’t be afraid to reach out to friends, or acquaintances, or even perfect strangers. The truth is, most people like to talk about the things they know, they like to help people, and they often think it’s pretty cool to learn we’re writing a book about something that fascinates them. Moreover, institutions like police departments and medical examiners offices, not to mention museums, government agencies, and scientific institutions, often have public relations offices that are there to answer our questions. Avail yourself of these resources.

4) Let your brain go wild: Plotting our books takes time and precision. It’s hard work, in part because we are forced to reign in our creative impulses a bit in order to come up with narratives that are logical, that make sense to our readers. World building is hard, too, and it also requires a certain rationality. But, as I said before, it is a time of possibility. We can choose what it means to be logical in this new setting. Decisions that will become immutable once we begin to write, remain fluid for now. This is the stage in the process when our imaginations should be most at liberty to roam. Enjoy that freedom.

5) Finally, be patient: Most of the time, I measure my work output in terms of pages and word counts. Progress is tangible and easily quantified. World building isn’t like that. At this stage of a project, I spend much of my time staring out the window, thinking, trying to come up with ideas, with names, with histories and forms of government and religions and the like. It is an amorphous, sloppy process that is nearly impossible to measure in any concrete way. This bothers me — it always has. I grow impatient. I chide myself for not “getting more done.” I have been world building for this new series for, like, two weeks, and already I’m railing at myself for not being done. Just for the sake of comparison, I took three months to research the Thieftaker books, so I need to cut myself some slack. World building is work. It might not break down into units that are easily counted and banked, but it’s work nevertheless. And if you’re like me, and you chafe at that sort of thing… Well, give yourself a break. That’s what I plan to do. Because I have a lot more world building to do.

Keep writing!

Writing Tip Wednesday: Maps, Worldbuilding, and the Creation of Story

So you’re trapped in your home with too much time and too little to do. The world around you has gone to hell, and you’re fed up. Sound familiar?

Yeah, thought so. So why not take the opportunity to create your own world? You’re a writer. You have that power.

Not long ago, I wrote about creating magic systems, and that advice could come in handy in this process. But there is lots, lots more to worldbuilding than just magic. That’s the beauty of it. A created world can be as complex and rich and deep as you want it to be.

I am not going to try to squeeze every element of worldbuilding into this post. I could write ten essays on the subject and not exhaust it, and I promise to return to world building topics in future posts. For today, let’s start with this: I LOVE creating maps. That might sound weird, but it’s true. I’m not particularly skilled as a visual artist – which is to say that I have NO skill at all in that regard. But my maps are pretty darn good, if I do say so myself.

I start with graph paper when I can. (I’m sure you can get some through an online seller if you need it. Unlike other sorts of paper, it doesn’t seem to be a hoard-worthy product…) Why graph paper? Because it allows you to keep track of your scale as you create land features, rivers, oceans, cities, etc.

Map of IslevaleAnd then I just let my imagination run wild. At first I let my hand wander over the page, creating the broad outlines of my world. Sometimes I have to start over a couple of times before I come up with a design I like. But generally, I find that the less I impose pre-conceived notions on my world, the more successful my initial efforts. I draw land masses, taking care to make my shorelines realistically intricate. (Take a look at a map of the real world. Even seemingly “smooth” coastlines are actually filled with inlets, coves, islands, etc.) I put in rivers and lakes. I locate my mountain ranges, deserts, wetlands, etc.

And then comes the fun part. I start naming stuff.

Yeah, okay, it takes a certain level of geek to find naming stuff on a map fun. But bear with me. You see, place names and land feature names are stories waiting to happen. Sure, sometimes we call places by names that are stupidly obvious. The Rocky Mountains, for instance. Yeah, very original, not to mention informative. Distinguishes them from the Cheesy Mountains, I guess… On the other hand, each named peak in the Rockies DOES tell a story. So do place names that include a person’s name or that use geographic features to anthropomorphize.

Maybe your world has a hero whose exploits are so renowned that places are simply named for her, randomly, the way seemingly every state in the Union has a “Washington County” or a city named “Lincoln.” We need to learn the story of your hero.

Maybe your mountains are named for one or more of your mythical beings. What is (are) their story (stories)? Maybe you have a river that is named for a warrior who perished on its banks, or a range of hills that are said to be haunted.

My point is not that EVERY name you give has to convey a story. Sometimes a Rocky Mountain is simply a mountain that’s rocky. Sometimes a Whitewater Creek is simply a creek that has lots of rapids. But a fraction of your named features should have names that tell much, much more about your world than just what it looks like. A few of your names should hint at stories, at history or lore. My world maps tend to have three or four or even five separate nations, and each nation (handled in separate maps) tends to have maybe thirty names (cities, mountains, deserts, forests, lakes, rivers, bays, harbors, oceans, etc.). Even if only one out of five has a name worthy of a story… Well, you can do the math. That’s a good number of stories.

And then (and this is REALLY the fun part) you need to write those stories. They will give you some of your history for your world. Maybe they will give you some of your religion, or even your economy. They may hint at social customs, at holy days, at rites of passage. Certainly they will help you refine the authorial voice for writing in your world. They may even give you material to sell to short story markets. The first short story I ever published – “Night of Two Moons,” published in  back in 2002 – was a historical tale set in the Forelands. I have since sold short stories set in the Thieftaker world, the Fearsson world, and Islevale. And yes, as I remember it, that Forelands story grew out of something I first named on the original map.

Worldbuilding is tons of fun. Yes, it’s work, but it is well worth the effort. I have heard writers say, “Oh, I don’t do a lot of worldbuilding. I focus on character instead.” And each time I hear that, I think it’s the most ridiculous thing ever said. Writing is not a zero sum game. My worldbuilding doesn’t detract from my character work, thank you very much. But it does enrich my storytelling by making my settings more compelling and more realistic.

So while our real world is going to hell in a handbasket (another really, really odd phrase – I’ve started a list…), you can escape for a while by creating your own world. You’ll enjoy it, and, more important, you’ll get background for your world and material for short fiction.

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Creating Magic Systems

I do everything in my power to keep magic from taking over my story, because ultimately, even in the most imaginative fantasy worlds, magic should remain secondary to character and plot.

For today’s Writing Tip, I would like to offer the first of what I expect will be an intermittent series world building posts. I love world building. Of all the things we speculative fiction writers get to do, it may be the one I think of as the most fun. It can involve a ton of research (which, for many of us, adds to the fun), but it is, at its core, an act of pure creation. It is that stage of writing a book when we get to play “let’s pretend,” sometimes for days, even weeks, at a time. What’s not to love?

There are lots of elements to world building, of course, but for today’s purposes, I want to talk about creating our magic systems.

To many, magic is the defining feature of fantasy stories, the one story element that sets what we do apart from the work of other writers. I’m not entirely sure I believe that (and it could be a topic for a fun bar conversation), but I do agree that for fantasies that include magic, developing a consistent and believable magic system is absolutely essential to the success of our narrative.

So, what are the most important ingredients of a good magic system?

Let me start here: Everything I’m about to say is just my opinion. These are the things that I strive to put into my magic systems. There are other ways to do this, and I would never be so arrogant as to suggest that if you don’t set up your magic with the properties I use in mine, you’re doing it wrong. So with every declarative statement I’m about to make, please insert a silent “In my opinion” or “To my way of thinking.”

I try to make my magic systems limited, costly, ordered, and realistic (to the extent that anything magical can be). I do everything in my power to keep magic from taking over my story, because ultimately, even in the most imaginative fantasy worlds, magic should remain secondary to character and plot. In my opinion.

All of my magic system requirements are interlocked, but the first two in particular are closely related.

By limited, I mean just that. Magic can be powerful, it can be frightening. It can be wondrous. It should NOT be the answer to every problem our magic-wielding characters encounter. It can’t be omnipotent. At least not if I’m to keep to what I said above about not allowing magic to take over my story. So the first thing I like to do with my magic system is figure out specifically what magic can do. In the Thieftaker and Fearsson books, that has meant coming up with a partial list of spells, and giving all of them a similar amount of reach and impact. For the Winds of the Forelands series, it meant coming up with different categories of Qirsi magic – mists and winds, language of beasts, shattering, healing, etc. It’s not that every person’s magic is the same, or even that my list of abilities is necessarily comprehensive. Part of the fun of writing these books is discovering new flavors of magic as each series progresses. But in determining what most magics are like, I begin to define the boundaries of what magic can do and what it can’t.

Magics should be costly because even a relatively limited magic can take over a story if your magic-wielder can draw upon it over and over and over without consequence. By imposing a cost for magic – fatigue, blood loss, the shortening of one’s life (as in Winds of the Forelands) or the loss of years (as with the time travel in my Islevale Cycle) – I force my characters to use their magic strategically and, even more important, to rely on other qualities as they seek to overcome whatever problems I place in their paths. Magic without cost is empty, it’s boring. Any victories achieved with it will wind up feeling cheap and unearned, which we don’t want.

An ordered magic system is internally consistent. Limits that apply in one situation will, generally speaking, apply in all situations. The costs of magic are extracted from all. Sure, a more experienced or more powerful sorcerer/mage/conjurer/weremyste might deal with those costs better than others. There is nothing wrong with hierarchies. The problems arise when there is no rationale for discrepancies in what magic does for one person or another. Now, I will also say that quite often we set up our rules and costs and limits, only to introduce a villain who finds her way around those things. That’s fine, as long as we can explain within the logic of the system exactly what makes her exceptional. The fact that there are rules doesn’t necessarily mean that our hero knows all of those rules. By giving our villain this sort of advantage, we make her that much more dangerous, and we force our hero to find a way, within the rules, to overcome her foe’s powers. Our hero might have to learn something new, or find an innovative way to apply old rules. These are the sorts of conflicts I relish as a writer.

All of these structural elements are intended to make our magic systems as realistic as possible, but realism goes beyond them. Magic should seem to the reader to be as endemic to the worlds we create as air and water, as the cycle of days and seasons, as the oceans and deserts and forests we describe. It should be elemental, integral to the larger world. Just as gravity applies to all on our planet (until we find some way within the rules of physics to defy gravity), so should magic and its rules apply believably across the board in our worlds. This is why Thieftaker magic looks just like 18th century descriptions of witchcraft – I wanted my magic to blend with my historical world.

I’ll end this by returning to a point I raised early on: Magic is a plot device, something we use to make our work original and intriguing and fun, for us and for our readers. It is no replacement for good plotting and convincing character work. In fact, I’ll take this a step further: in most of my stories, at the end, magic will fail my characters. They will find themselves driven to the very limits of their magical abilities, and these talents will prove insufficient. In order to prevail, they will need to draw upon other qualities: wit, resourcefulness, courage, strength. Only by combining these other, more ordinary, human attributes with their magic, can they emerge triumphant. Because magic is not, cannot be, the most important thing. We are writing about people, first and foremost. And we want their victories to reflect who and what they are. It’s easy to write a magical victory. Writing a human victory – that’s the great challenge.

Keep writing! Hope to see many of you at Saga this weekend!

SHADOW’S BLADE Audio Book Giveaway!

Shadow's Blade, by David B. Coe, audio book

Look what I have! A new, unopened, single-disc, MP3 format audio book of SHADOW’S BLADE, book 3 in my Case Files of Justis Fearsson urban fantasy series from Baen Books. The narrator is Bronson Pinchot, and the novel is the best I’ve published to date.

And I’m giving this away. Tweet about this post, share it on Facebook, spread the word in some way online, and you are entered to win it. Drawing will be next Friday, and the disc will be sent out first class on Monday Dec. 19th, in time for holiday delivery. So get started!! And good luck.

Justis Fearsson Journal Entry — September 23: A #HoldOnToTheLight post

#HoldOnToTheLightWhen Gail Martin invited me to participate in the #HoldontotheLight campaign, I leapt at the chance and thought immediately of Justis Fearsson, the lead character in my contemporary urban fantasy, The Case Files of Justis Fearsson (Spell Blind, His Father’s Eyes, Shadow’s Blade, all from Baen Books). Every book in the series deals with mental health issues, and the magic system itself is build around them. Jay Fearsson is a weremyste. He’s a sorcerer all the time, but every month on the full moon he lapses into temporary insanity and his magic strengthens. Gradually, these moon phasings will drive him permanently insane, as they did his father, also a weremyste.

Magic in Jay’s world is known, but stigmatized, much as mental health problems are in our world, and Jay not only suffers from his own magic-induced illness, he is also a caretaker for his Dad. Magic, of course, is a device, a way into these issues that allows me to write books that are entertaining and edifying at the same time. In the piece that follows, Jay reflects on grappling with his own demons, just as people I love — friends and family — deal with theirs on a daily basis. I wish all of you strength and good health, and I hope that this piece, and our group efforts to #HoldontotheLight, help in some small way. — DBC

*****
If Billie and I ever have kids, and any of them grow up to be weremystes, like me, I’ll tell them about this, my second birthday.

A person can’t be a weremyste without understanding mental illness. Can’t be done. Every month on the full moon, and the nights immediately before and after, we lose our minds, even as our magic strengthens. That the insanity is temporary does nothing to soften the impact of those moon phasings. And over the course of time — no surprise — subjecting our minds to that magical meat grinder does permanent damage.

My dad is a weremyste, a burned-out old sorcerer who’s subject to delusions, hallucinations, and all the rest. I look at him, and I see more than a man with my pale gray eyes and tapered jaw. I see me in thirty years. I see my future, and it’s not pretty.

There isn’t one of us who hasn’t put something to his or her head in the middle of a phasing. A bottle of cheap bourbon, a crack pipe, a pistol. I’ve never tried crack, but the other two . . . Yeah, I’ve drunk my way through a lot of full moons, and I’ve rested the muzzle of my Glock against my temple more times than I care to count. It’s a miracle that I’m still alive.

But what set September 23, 2007 apart from all the other times was that it didn’t fall on a full moon. We were still three nights shy of the first night of the phasing.

It wasn’t temporary insanity than put the pistol in my hand. I don’t have that excuse.

I didn’t have Billie in my life back then. I was new to the Phoenix police force and really wasn’t holding it together too well, what with trying to take care of my dad and stumbling from one phasing to the next. I couldn’t confide in my partner, Kona, because at that point she didn’t know I was a weremyste, and I wasn’t ready to confess all. And I was staring down the barrel of yet another phasing.

That night, I’d had enough. I was weary to my very soul. I couldn’t imagine weathering another full moon, much less a lifetime of them. I was filled with dread and self-loathing and I just wanted a way out, no matter how extreme or final. I wouldn’t say I was at my best or even fully cogent. But as I say, I didn’t have the excuse of the moon phasing. This was me, unvarnished, face to face with the worst of my demons.

So, why am I still alive? Why am I able to celebrate today as a second “birthday”? I wish I could point to some heart-warming epiphany that made me put down the Glock and pull my shit together. I wish I would say that I thought of how much I love my father and knew I couldn’t leave him alone, or that I realized God loved me and so understood my self-worth and my place in the world. But I don’t think life works that way. It certainly didn’t for me.

No, it was darker than that. I imagined Kona finding my body. I imagined her having to drive out to Wofford, where my Dad has his trailer, and explain to him what had happened. What I had done. I tried to piece together that conversation in my head; I thought of her fighting through his dementia, making him understand that I was dead, a suicide.

Okay, maybe it was that I love him. But there were no angels signing, no fanfare of trumpets, nothing beautiful or dramatic or romantic about it. I chose not to kill myself because I wasn’t willing to put the people I care about through the pain of dealing with my mess.

Only later on, a couple of months down the road, did I come to appreciate how close I had come to  doing something unspeakable. And by that time, Kona and I were getting along better. I had started to confide in her. Namid, the Runemyste who guides my magical training, had come into my life and forced me to see my powers as something other than a burden. I’d started to work on improving my relationship with my Dad and, lo and behold, on those rare days when he was coherent, he responded by opening up a little.

In other words, life got better. Not turn-my-world-around better. But it was progress nevertheless. The phasings still sucked. There was no way around that. And yet, even they weren’t quite so bad. I managed to get through more and more of them without reaching for a fifth of Jack, or wondering where I’d left my weapon.

My second birthday didn’t Change Everything. Really it changed nothing. All that happened was I hit bottom and managed to keep myself from pulling the trigger. That was enough, though. Because we get better. We learn to cope. We love and we live and we fight the battles that need to be fought.

I don’t have a lot of answers. When my son or daughter wrestles with his or her demons, I won’t have any magical solutions for them — pun intended. I’ll just be able to tell them what I learned all those years ago. Every day we refuse to give up, is another day we win.

*****
About the campaign:

#HoldOnToTheLight is a blog campaign encompassing blog posts by fantasy and science fiction authors around the world in an effort to raise awareness around treatment for depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD initiatives, bullying prevention and other mental health-related issues. We believe fandom should be supportive, welcoming and inclusive, in the long tradition of fandom taking care of its own. We encourage readers and fans to seek the help they or their loved ones need without shame or embarrassment.

Please consider donating to or volunteering for organizations dedicated to treatment and prevention such as: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Home for the Warriors (PTSD), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Canadian Mental Health Association, MIND (UK), SANE (UK), BeyondBlue (Australia), To Write Love On Her Arms and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

To find out more about #HoldOnToTheLight, find a list of participating authors and blog posts, or reach a media contact, go to
https://www.facebook.com/groups/276745236033627/

A Quick-Tip Tuesday Post on Travel and Narrative

We never know when we’re going to draw upon experiences in our lives, be it for setting or character, plot or emotional content, dialog or action or romance or any of the myriad other narrative elements that come, at least in part, from our own lives.

We writers are pack rats. We hoard everything. Maybe not in a physical sense (though I’m that kind of pack rat, as well), but certainly in a conceptual sense.

It’s Quick-Tip Tuesday over at Magical Words and I have a post up today about travel, experience, and turning memory into narrative. I’ve been drawing on my own travel experiences for my fiction for nearly twenty years, and as we move into summer travel season, it strikes me as a good time to discuss such things. The post can be found here. I hope you enjoy it.

Win a Signed Copy of HIS FATHER’S EYES!!

Layout 1HIS FATHER’S EYES, the second novel in my Case Files of Justis Fearsson series (a contemporary urban fantasy from Baen Books) will be re-released in paperback on March 29, 2016. To mark the occasion, I’m giving away two signed copies of the book on March 22. Want a chance to win?

Great! Here’s what you do. Tweet about the book and the release on Twitter, and include @DavidBCoe in the tweet. Or post about it on Facebook and tag “David B. Coe” in the post. Or do something else on social media and let me know what you did. If you’ve already done those things in response to an earlier Facebook post or tweet, that’s fine. You’re good — you’re entered already. Although, of course, you’re welcome to post/tweet again . . .

200SpellBlindI love this book, and I hope you will, too. And if you haven’t yet read the first book in the series, SPELL BLIND, this is as good a time as any to pick up a copy!

Thanks, and good luck!

Today on the Blog Tour: Nemesis and Protagonist

One of the things that the first book did not do — because it wasn’t necessary to the plot — was to set up a nemesis for Jay Fearsson who would outlast the narrative of this particular novel. I mean someone like Leo Pellisier in Faith’s Jane Yellowrock novels, or Sephira Pryce in the Thieftaker Chronicles, or the rival powers in C.E. Murphy’s Negotiator series: a character who represents both danger and opportunity for the protagonist, someone who challenges my hero, who threatens him, but who also relates to his darker side.

As I say, there was no room in the first book for such a character. But in the second there is. His name is Jacinto Amaya . . . .

The 2015 Summer-of-Two-Releases Virtual Tour resumes today, after a brief hiatus, with a post at the Magical Words blog site. The post is about creating a long-term nemesis for our protagonist and what that can to infuse energy into our stories. I use His Father’s Eyes, the second volume in the Case Files of Justis Fearsson, as a case study for this. I hope you find it helpful. You can find the post here.

Breaking Down the Opening of HIS FATHER’S EYES

A few weeks ago, around the time of the release of Dead Man’s Reach, I broke down the opening paragraphs of that fourth Thieftaker novel, to give you some sense of what I was trying to accomplish on the first page of the book. It was a fairly standard start — effective and, I think, nicely written — but not all that different from past Thieftaker openings.

I’d like to do something similar today with the first few paragraphs of His Father’s Eyes, as a way of contrasting this opening with that other. You’ll see immediately that the first page of this book is very different. The opening is the least conventional of any I’ve ever written. In fact, it breaks many of the rules I usually encourage aspiring writers to follow.

The 2015 Summer-of-Two-Releases Virtual Tour returns to Magical Words for another post about openings. In this one, I break down the opening lines of His Father’s Eyes, the second book in my Case Files of Justis Fearsson series, which just came out last week. You can find the post here. Enjoy!

The Virtual Tour Goes to the Library

I discovered worlds there. As a kid, I was fascinated by nature and the Apollo moon missions, and so I took out every book I could find on birds and mammals, rockets and space. Thanks to the librarian — I’ve forgotten her name, but I remember that she learned mine right away, and welcomed me every time I walked through the doors to the Children’s Room — I was introduced to the charming stories of Sterling North, and found countless books about baseball (another of my passions).

After a brief break, the 2015 Summer-of-Two-Releases Virtual Tour resumes today with a post over at the Word Nerds Review site. Bethany and Stacie, who run the site, are both strong advocates for public libraries, and they asked me to write about what libraries have meant to me. It was an easy and joyful piece to write. You can find the post here.