Tag Archives: Thieftaker

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!

Monday Musings: Getting the Most Out of a Convention

I am just finishing up a very nice weekend at Boskone, a terrific regional convention in Boston. This was my second Boskone, and I feel that I am starting to know people at the con, and also to be known. I hope to be back again next year.

The truth is, this was the first convention in some time that I have truly enjoyed. I am frustrated by elements of the business right now, and I’m struggling with my creative process. Over the past year or so, those frustrations have kept me from getting as much out of my convention appearances as I would have liked.

I have read plenty of “How To Approach a Convention” advice posts. I’ve even written a few. There is lots of helpful advice out there on how to network at conventions, how to comport oneself on panels and at readings, how to approach the entire con experience in a way that will maximize its impact on career growth. This is not one of those posts.

Rather, I am thinking about what I did this weekend to ensure that I had a positive emotional experience, to make certain that I didn’t come away with deepening frustration or the sense that I had wasted my time. So here is my $.02 on making the most of the convention experience on a more personal level.

Go into a convention weekend with realistic expectations. The best conventions I’ve attended are not necessarily the ones that result in book deals or anthology invitations or even new relationships with Movers and Shakers. No, the best weekends are the ones that simply leave me energized. You don’t need to have a huge breakthrough or a career changing moment for the weekend to be worth your time and money.

Along similar lines, be aware of the smaller moments and look to harness them. That energizing experience can come from something as simple as a stimulating panel discussion or a late night conversation in the hotel bar or a reading that helps you see beyond a plot point that has held up your WIP. Don’t overlook these encounters and experiences; don’t take them for granted. Try to recognize them as they happen, even if it’s on the very first afternoon of the convention, and make note of the moment. “What a great conversation! [For instance.] Even if nothing else happens this weekend, that justifies my being here.”

Take some time away from the convention. This is a big one for me. I love to travel and explore, and since conventions often take us to new places, I take the opportunity to see the city or landscape beyond the convention hotel. As an example, last year, the first time I attended Boskone, I walked part of the Boston Freedom Trail, seeing historical spots I’d written about in the Thieftaker books. This year it was too cold and windy for that, but on Thursday night, just after my arrival, I went out to dinner on my own, enjoying some good food and the ambiance of a fun restaurant. The next morning, I met a dear relative for lunch in Quincy Market.

The corollary to taking time away from the convention is don’t be afraid to be alone for a while. When we attend conventions, we often feel that we have to be social every minute of every day. That’s not only unrealistic, for many of us it’s a recipe for burnout. Alone time is healthy, it allows us to take stock of the experience we’re having and perhaps make some adjustments in attitude and approach. That dinner I had alone was great fun. So was the one I had the next night with several friends. We need a blend of experiences.

And since I mentioned attitude… Go into the weekend with as positive an attitude as possible. This doesn’t mean that you should be annoyingly peppy or anything like that. But do try to approach the convention with the expectation that it will be a positive experience. This year I was dreading Boskone a little bit. Not because it isn’t a great con, but because my recent conventions had left me so disappointed. But the day I flew up to Boston I tried to force myself out of my own head, as it were. I knew that if I approached the weekend expecting the worst, that would be what I got. Instead, I went in open to whatever might happen. The con wasn’t perfect, but I managed to laugh off those moments that didn’t go so well, and embrace those that did.

A lot of this is pretty basic stuff — and a lot of it can be applied to experiences other than conventions — but now and then it helps to be reminded of even the most simple notions. I needed the reminder before this weekend. And if you find yourself heading to a convention with feelings of trepidation or even dread, maybe this post will help. I hope so.

Enjoy your week!

Quick-Tip Tuesday: Mapping Out the New Year

What can I say? I have a bit of an OCD streak. Okay, maybe even more than “a bit.”

But setting work goals and making up a work schedule for a new year is not just about me being the writing equivalent of Felix Unger (kids, ask your parents). I find that mapping out my professional year improves my chances of meeting whatever goals I might have for the coming months.

I have always been one to make New Year’s Resolutions and to set goals for the coming year as one wall calendar gives way to the next. Probably it’s the same impulse that leads me to outline most of my books, and to organize my book and CD collections alphabetically by artist. What can I say? I have a bit of an OCD streak. Okay, maybe even more than “a bit.”

But setting work goals and making up a work schedule for a new year is not just about me being the writing equivalent of Felix Unger (kids, ask your parents). I find that mapping out my professional year improves my chances of meeting whatever goals I might have for the coming months. Because at the root of the exercise is the creation of self-imposed deadlines, which, as I’ve mentioned previously, I treat as immutable, just as I would a deadline given to me by an editor. If I keep my deadlines realistic, and I commit myself to meeting them, I should have a productive year. And as writers, we really can’t ask for more than that.

So, that said, here are my goals for 2017:

1. I have just sent off to my agent the first book in an as-yet-uncontracted new series. I love the book and look forward to writing the rest of the series. My next step in working on this project is to write a synopsis of book 1 (which will help my agent place the book with a publisher) and to write as well brief descriptions of books 2 and 3.

1.a.  Once I’ve completed those preliminary steps, I want to dive in and write the second book. The first book took me a while and I have a feeling this second one will, too. I would guess that I’ll be writing the first draft of Book 2 through the end of April.

2. The next thing I have in mind to do is write a new Thieftaker novella about Ethan Kaille’s early life. (For those who are fans of the Thieftaker books, I plan to write the story of the Ruby Blade mutiny, which led to Ethan’s imprisonment.) I believe I can get this done in about 6 weeks, which will take me to mid-June. Once this is complete, I will gather all the Thieftaker short stories, of which there are about 8, and release them as a collection. I hope to see that in print by the end of the year.

3. Around mid-June I will also begin work on another new project that I’m undertaking with a couple of friends. We’re not yet ready to talk about this publicly, but essentially I will be writing a new novel of approximately 90,000 words. I should be able to have that written by the end of the summer.

4. During the summer, I will also begin editing for reissue the five books of my Winds of the Forelands series (originally released 2002-2007). As with my LonTobyn books, which I re-released in 2016 as Author’s Edits of the original books, I will be polishing and tightening the prose of these books without changing any of the plotting or character work. Since I’ll be working on item 3 at the same time — interspersing writing days with editing days — this will take me past the end of the summer and probably well into the fall.

5. Finally, I will also leave room in my schedule for the unexpected: editing work on the new project, assuming that we place it with a publisher some time during the year; short stories that I might be asked to write for anthologies or the like; travel for family stuff, or for conventions.

Those tasks should take me through much of 2017. If I can get all of that done — and I believe I can, meeting all of my self-assigned deadlines — I’ll consider it a successful year.

What about you? What are your professional plans for the coming year?

Free Fiction From D.B. Jackson and Faith Hunter!

Earlier this year, my wonderful friend Faith Hunter and I released “Water Witch,” a short story that combined her Jane Yellowrock world with the historical world I created for the Thieftaker Chronicles. Earlier this week, we embarked on a new collaboration,  a serialized short story again bringing together Hannah Everhart and Ethan Kaille. The first installment appeared in Faith’s newsletter, the second in mine.

Today, for one time only, we are re-releasing the installments on our websites, so that those interested can get a taste of our story. However, all subsequent installments will only be available on our newsletters. So, you need to sign up to receive them.

You can sign up for Faith’s newsletter here.

And you can sign up for mine here.

*****

“Explosion on King’s Street”

Hannah followed the sound of footsteps down the narrow alleyway, keeping far enough back that the man she tracked was only shadows and echoing footsteps on the cold, clear morning air. Ethan would be most unhappy with her for following the tough — Nap, he was called — but she had overheard Sephira Pryce, the self-proclaimed Empress of the South End, when she sent her man to pick up a payment from Lieutenant Patterson. Patterson owed Ethan a half crown and hadn’t paid, and Sephira had been known to steal Ethan’s payment from time to time.

The byway narrowed and Hannah slowed, holding her skirts close to keep from brushing them against the barrels and crates stacked along the wall of the Bunch of Grapes Tavern. A hen and her clutch pecked at spoiled food on the muddy side street and the protective fowl cocked her head and spread her wings to make herself bigger, a challenge to the intruder. Hannah wondered how her prey got by without the bird making a ruckus.

From ahead, Hannah heard a sharp click, metal against metal. The earth heaved. The world tumbled around her. Slamming her back and down. She sat up, her ears ringing. Debris was everywhere and smoke—sharp and acrid—hung on the air. People came from the nearby shops and from the tavern.

There had been an explosion, she realized, and her wits were addled, as much as her ears were deaf.

The chicken and her clutch were gone.
***
Ethan had just arrived at the tavern and put in an order for ale when the bomb went off. The force of the blast hammered him against the bar and peppered the back of his coat with shards of glass. He managed to keep his feet, but his ears rang and acrid smoke burned his lungs.

He thought he heard whispers, realized that these were shouts and groans barely penetrating his abused ears. Determined to reach the street, and to help others do the same, he waded through the hazed air, past the twisted, splintered remains of what had been tables and chairs. The bloodied and wounded, too numerous to count, lay strewn across the tavern floor. Ethan saw at least two men who appeared to be dead. He bent, lifted one of the injured, an older gentleman bearing a bloody gash on his arm and several on his face and neck. Together, they stumbled out onto King Street.

The carnage within the tavern was replicated here. Wounded littered the street, blood stained the cobblestones. In the middle of the lane, sat the source of the explosion: a black chaise, its roof gone, its interior little more than a smoking carcass. Whoever left it had taken time to unhitch the horse from its harness — a small mercy. But the carriage stood precisely between the Bunch of Grapes and the British Coffee House, one a Whig establishment, the other Tory.

Which had been the intended target?

The question should have been enough to occupy his mind. But at that moment he saw a figure stumble from a nearby alley, her steps unsteady, a dazed expression on her freckled face. Hannah Everhart. What, in the name of all that was holy, could she be doing here in the midst of this madness?

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.

POV and Q&A, Today on the Blog Tour!

As writers we should be deliberate in choosing the proper voice for each story. We shouldn’t choose third person simply because the market might prefer it, as once it did, nor should we automatically gravitate toward first person just because that voice is in vogue right now. Rather, we need to consider several factors in choosing the right POV voice and, for that matter, the correct point of view character.

Today’s installments of the 2015 Summer-of-Two-Releases Virtual Tour take me to the blogs of two dear friends.

Lucienne Diver is not only a wonderful writer, she is also a fantastic agent, and I should know, because she has represented me for about fifteen years now. I am at her blog today with a post about point of view, and its uses as a narrative tool. Using the examples of Dead Man’s Reach, the fourth Thieftaker novel, which came out a couple of weeks ago, and His Father’s Eyes, the second volume in the Case Files of Justis Fearsson, I discuss how I choose the correct voice for a novel. You can read the post here; I hope you find it helpful.

Brandy Schillace, author, academic, blogger, reviewer, friend extraordinaire, has been kind enough to host me again on her Fiction Reboot. Today, I answer questions about the Thieftaker books, writing, history, and magic. You can find the interview here.

Enjoy!

Community and Genre, part 2, and Another Giveaway!

Surely there is room in this genre for quiet stories and loud ones, for the old-fashioned and the new-and-weird, for space opera and epic fantasy, for military SF and urban fantasy, for writers of all races, religions, sexual orientations, and gender identities. If you don’t want to read all of these stories, if you don’t want to follow all of these writers, you don’t have to. No one is forcing anyone to do anything.

But it is one thing to choose. It is something else entirely to dismiss. It is time that we as a community recognize the difference.

The day after the release of His Father’s Eyes, book II in the Case Files of Justis Fearsson, I continue the 2015 Summer-of-Two-Releases Virtual Tour  with a couple of online appearances. The first, excerpted above, resumes the conversation on genre and community that I began two weeks ago at SFSignal. This new installment can be found here.

And later this afternoon, I will be back at Bitten By Books for a launch party celebrating yesterday’s release. We are giving away a $40.00 gift card to some lucky reader, and right now you can increase your chances of winning by RSVPing for the event here.