Does that title sound a little too familiar?
            Maybe we should talk about that…
            A few months back I read a book that I couldn’t figure out.  It left me completely baffled.  I’m not talking about the plot (granted, I was having trouble with that, too), but the setting. 
            I honestly couldn’t figure out the world.  At times, it seemed like it was the modern world that we all know and love—granted, with some sci-fi/ fantasy stuff going on in the background.  At other times, it seemed to be a sort of alternate history, post-apocalyptic “present.”  It didn’t help that every character was somehow tied directly into that sci-fi/ fantasy thread, because for all of them this was the “normal” world and they didn’t notice anything different about it.
            Why does this matter?
            Well, knowing where a story is set helps me, as a reader, to set my expectations and reactions.  It lets me get a sense of what’s possible, or what might be possible.  The setting is an automatic set of guidelines for the reader, for the characters, and for the writer, too.
            For example…
            A few years back I read an absolutely wonderful essay on Scooby-Doo and secular humanism.  No seriously.  You can read the whole thing here.  The writer made a very interesting point that shows why it’s so key to know what kind of world my story is set in.  He uses it as one link in a larger chain of logic, but for our purposes we can examine it alone.
            In all the classic Scooby-Doo episodes, the supernatural threat is always revealed to be a fake.  It’s someone in a costume (probably Carl the stuntman or Mr. Bascombe) using special effects of one kind or another for an ulterior motive.  It has to be, because in the world of classic Scooby Doo, ghosts and monsters aren’t real.  That’s why it makes sense for Velma, Fred, and Daphne to act rationally and why it’s funny when Shaggy and Scooby get scared and run away—they’re scared of the fake monsters.
            If the supernatural is real (as it is in some of those later stories), suddenly everything shifts.  The rules of the world have changed, so we have to look at the characters in a new light.  Now Velma and the others are foolish for trying to apply logic to inherently illogical creatures and for exposing themselves to life-threatening monsters like werewolves and vampires.  Not only that, Shaggy and Scooby are now the smart ones, because being scared of vampires is a perfectly rational response in a world where vampires are real.
            Here’s another one.
            I recently read a piece by one of the editors at Marvel comics.  He proudly spoke about how their stories are set in “the real world.”  The characters, their reactions, the world around them…
            And I have to admit, my first thought was… what a bunch of nonsense.
            (I may not have used the word nonsense.  I tend to be a bit more emphatic with my internal dialogue…)
             Let’s consider a few details about the Marvel Comics universe.  It is commonly known that some people can fly.  It’s not exactly secret that magic is real and aliens exist.  Super-powered human mutants are also real and receive tons of media attention.  There’s a large, tropical valley in Antarctica where dinosaurs still live, visible on Google Earth and written about in several textbooks.  Energy weapons are commonplace, as is high-tech battle armor.  There are numerous publicly-known artificial intelligences in the world.  Standing next to detonating atomic weapons can give you superpowers.  Hell, in the Marvel Universe, you can jump off the Empire State Building and there’s actually a halfway decent chance someone will catch you on the way down.
            Does this sound remotely like the real world
            Would the people of this world have the same expectations you and I do?  Would they think and react to things the same way?  I live in LA, and when I hear a faint rumble and the building shakes, I normally check Facebook to see if anyone else felt an earthquake.  In the Marvel Universe, I’d probably assume it was superheroes battling a giant monster.  If I got a headache, I’d be checking to see if it was telekinesis or some form of optic blasts.  And then take aspirin.  And then check for telekinesis again, just in case it interacts with drugs somehow. And the thing is, these would be perfectly rational reactions in the Marvel Universe.
           Now, one more example.  Harry Potter.  In this world there are wizards, giants, dragons, hippogriffs, goblin bankers, house-elves, gnomes, and much, much more (no aliens, though).  But the thing is, it all exists kind of… off to the side.  The average person in the world of Harry Potter has never heard of Hogwarts and can’t find Diagon Alley.  The magical world rarely overlaps with the mundane one, and we learn there are whole government departments charged with making sure they stay separate.  The real world for them is the real world we all know about, one where there’s no such thing as magic.
            Starting to make sense?  If I can’t define my world, I can’t define what is and isn’t possible.  I can’t have characters react appropriately if I don’t know what would be appropriate.
            On the flipside, there’s a period show on right now that kind of gnaws at me.  Mostly because it’s set in Victorian London and one of the supporting characters never wears a hat… but also because of the setting.  The main plot revolves around our protagonist attempting to perfect wireless, broadcasted electricity, something Tesla worked on for decades.  Our hero hopes to destroy the fortunes of a group of wealthy oilmen by rendering their investments worthless.
            Now, here’s the thing.  We know broadcast power wasn’t invented at the turn of the last century, so if the show ends with our hero succeeding, it means the whole story’s been set in an alternate history.  But if his broadcast power fails, it implies the story’s set in the real world.  But until one or the other happens, I can’t tell you the setting.
            Of course some of you may know what program I’m talking about and I’m sure you’re going to bring up the larger point—the vampires.  But here’s the interesting point.  The vampires are irrelevant.  Much like Hogwarts and Diagon Alley, no one knows the vampires exist. 
            But the broadcast power… that’s in the news.  There were press releases and huge parties.  Broadcast power changes everything.  That’s a world where, from the beginning of the electrical age, nothing needs batteries or wall outlets.  There are countless changes and repercussions if broadcast power is real.
            Y’see, Timmy, my fantastic story can still be set in the real world provided the events of my story don’t change the world.  I mean, within the world of the show only a handful of people in London know vampires are real.  It’s not public knowledge.  And today in the modern world we’ve never heard of or seen evidence of vampires in the Victorian era, so that part of the story has an aura of truth and reality to it.    
           If you want to set an amazing story in the real world, you need to use conspiracy theory logic.    I’ve used this analogy before, and bizarre as it may sound it works.  Yep, the same reasoning used by moon-landing deniers, “9-11 was staged” folks, and the birthers is what makes for a good fiction story. No irony there…
            By conspiracy-theory logic, any facts that disprove XYZ are an attempt to hide the truth, thus further proving XYZ is true.  The very lack of evidence is the proof that it’s true.  And if I stumble across a few coincidences that imply XYZ might be true, well, that’s just more evidence XYZ is true.
            Didn’t I just describe the world of Harry Potter?
            The vampires hide all trace of their existence.  There is no evidence that vampires exist.  Ipso facto (fancy Latin words) my story rings true because it lines up with all known facts.  Follow me?
            The world of my story has to have its own consistent logic.  Because if I don’t know my world, I can’t know how characters in my world react to things.  And if I don’t know my characters, well… that’s it.
            Next time… well, is there any topic anyone would like covered?  I can probably ramble on about most anything (as this post shows).  Let me know in the comments if there’s something you’d like me to babble about.
            And if no one does, I’ll come up with something worthwhile.
            Until then, go write.
July 12, 2013 / 4 Comments

Knowing Is Half The Battle…

            This is just ridiculously late, isn’t it?  I think this may be the longest I’ve ever gone without posting something here.  For all of you regular readers, I am so, so sorry (occasional, sporadic readers—I regret nothing!).  In the past couple weeks I’ve been trying to finish the fourth Ex book, plus traveling for cons and events.  This week the third book, Ex-Communication, came out everywhere so it’s just been kind of a whirlwind.
            But enough about my whiny excuses.  Let’s look into a new topic…
            A question came up the other day about research.  How much do you do?  How much do you need to do?  How much of it needs to go into your book?
            It’s tough to pin down how much research is right because—odd as it may sound—getting the facts right is such a subjective thing.  There are times I need to get things right and there are times I need to… well, make stuff up. 
            Here’s a couple of guidelines I use when doing my own research.
Story Always Comes First
            Truth to be told, when I sit down to write a first draft I don’t do a lot of research.  I don’t worry about what town George Washington was in on May 31st, 1769, what deck the first class galley was located on the Titanic, or how tall Alexander the Great’s favorite horse stood in cubits. 
            To be blunt, none of that matters.  Not in a first draft.  If I’m going to get hung up on page eight about whether or not Einstein’s maid was right or left handed, well…  I’m not going to get very far. 
            I also shouldn’t try to reverse-engineer stories to facts.  I don’t decide “wow, I’d like to do a story about the American Revolutionary War” and spend a month looking stuff up and waiting for anything to jump out at me. 
            I do research to add to the story, not to build the foundation with it.  So I need a story first, research second.
            Well, not really…
Character Comes Second
            I’m going to say something now that may annoy some of you, but it really needs to be said.    
            There are stupid people in the world.  A lot of them.  To be honest, there are matters we’re all stupid about.  There are aspects of religions, sciences, history that we know nothing about.  I know there’s lots of stuff I know nothing about, and the vast majority of folks are the same way.
            Some of these stupid, uneducated people are going to show up in our stories.
            It’s tempting to have everyone get everything right in a story.  They understand every reference, know the complete history of every nation on Earth, comprehend every bit of jargon or slang.  The truth is though, people get stuff wrong all the time.  There are people whose only knowledge of firearms comes from Schwarzenegger movies,and there are folks who got most of their medical knowledge from House. For the longest time, most of my investigative skills came from the Three Investigators and the Hardy Boys, with some fine tuning from Scooby Doo.  This is just human nature.
            As a writer, it’s important for me to understand what a character will know and what they won’t (and what they might “know” instead).  So there’s going to be a lot of times in my writing where research gets tossed aside.  I don’t want to discard it, but I need to understand there are times research just isn’t relevant.  Because if I want believable characters, some of them are going to have to be stupid characters.  Or at least, uneducated in several fields.
Fifteen Minutes or Less
            As a few thousand people have observed, one of the amazing things about the internet is just how much information is on it.  It’s hit the point that most of us are more amazed when we can’t find something online.
            Which probably makes for a good rule of thumb.  If I can spend a solid fifteen minutes searching for something online and find no sign of it (Cleopatra’s bra size, for example), there’s a good chance very few other people are going to know the answer to that, either.
            Keeping that in mind…
Know What You Don’t Know
            There’s an old chestnut that in any situation there’s what you know, what you know you don’t know, and what you don’t know you don’t know.  The last one is almost always what gets you into trouble.
            The trick here is that I at least have to have enough knowledge to know what I don’t know.  For example, any time I write about a field I’m not familiar with, I feel safe saying there’s a lot of slang and specialist terms used by people in that field.  So there’s a bit of figuring here about how many people will know that factoid I can’t find. 
            For example, I don’t know much about black-ops security password required lengths, but–by their very nature–neither do a lot of other people.  On the other hand, I also don’t know a lot of military nicknames for different ranks and jobs, but between active and reserve there are over two million people in the U.S. Armed Forces, so that’s a much larger potential audience who will know if I screw something up.
It’s A Trap!
            Probably the best guideline I can offer.  There’s a point where research becomes an excuse not to do any actual work.  Some people use “research” as an excuse to put off writing for another day or two.  Or a week.  Or a month.  I know a few folks whose writing has come to a dead halt because they need to do more research.  Some times it’s research into history or weapons or a certain town square.  Other times it’s research into better ways to structure their story or how to establish character.
            Just remember that first rule of thumb up above.  I need to have a story first.  Until I have at least a crude, bare-bones draft to work from… I don’t have anything. 
             Next time (and I promise, next time will be much sooner), I’d like to talk to you about this radio I made from six coconuts and some sand.  It’s incredibly fragile, though, so we’ll have to be careful around it until I call to get us rescued.
            Until then, go write.
May 12, 2013

The Scooby Ambiguity

            Not a pop-culture reference to the title of a Middleman episode.

            But it could’ve been…
            So sorry I’m behind in the ranty blog.  Between finishing the new manuscript and Texas Frightmare, the past few weeks have been a blur.  I think I’m back on schedule now, though, and you should be getting very regular posts for the next few weeks.
            I was trying to come up for a term for the idea I wanted to get across this week, and my girlfriend suggested the Scooby Ambiguity.  Which fit perfectly and also helped me structure my little rant.  As before, I’m hoping this becomes a standard term in storytelling.
            Allow me to explain.
            I’m sure most of you reading this are familiar with the basic plot of a Scooby-Doo episode.  The gang rolls into town and encounters some kind of ghost or monster, usually three or four times.  Then Velma finds some clues, applies some deductive reasoning, and reveals the ancient mummy to be Dr. Najib, the museum currator, in a disguise.
            (For the record, there’s a fantastic article about Scooby Doo and secular humanism over here at Comics Alliance.  No, really.  It’s also makes some brilliant observation about character and setting, so check it out.)
           Now, every now and then, in a Scooby episode or another story structured like it, we’ll have a moment of confusion, often near the end.  We’ll get one fact that doesn’t match up.  If Dr. Najib was in the costume… then who was the mummy we saw in the old tomb? There weren’t any other accomplices.  The film projector was shut off.  Could that have really been… the mummy?
            (cue spooky music)
            You’ve probably seen this sort of thing in a lot of stories.  It’s a pretty classic “…or is it?” device.  One of the first times I remember seeing it in was the old X-Men/ Teen Titans crossover penned by Chris Claremont, when the ghost of Jean Grey shows up to warn the X-Men about Darkseid.  Simply put, the Scooby Ambiguity is the one element that doesn’t fit in my established setting
            Now, when done right, this can be a wonderful thing.  When handled with a light touch, it can give the audience a little thrill of excitement.  It might even count as a minor twist.
            When done wrong, though… well, your story falls apart
            For example…
            There’s a series of fairly successful books I read now and then.  I’ll be polite and not name them, even though they’re kind of a guilty pleasure.  I know they’re awful on several levels, and they always frustrate me for one reason or another, but I can’t help myself…
            Anyway, the series is firmly grounded in the real world.  Real locations, real law enforcement, real problems.  It’s a lot like Scooby Doo, in fact.  There are stories about zombies, mummies, and vampires, but in the end we get a solid, scientific explanation for these things, and more than a few times someone actually gets a mask pulled off.
            In one of the books,  the main character is a passenger on a jumbo jet with an unknown killer on the loose, and a huge stormfront is actually keeping them in the air, forcing them onward rather than trying to land. 
            Then, in the last hundred pages or so, we learn the killer is actually the physically manifested psychic energy of four passengers who are all projecting their Id out into the world.
            No, I’m serious.  Out of nowhere, in the middle of this reality-based story, the killer is a telepathically-created monster.
            On the flipside, consider Dan Abnett’s ongoing book series about Gaunt’s Ghosts.  It’s a sci-fi war story about soldiers during a massive interplanetary crusade.  There’s guns, tanks, ongoing logistics and morale issues.
            And every now and then… a miracle.  Nothing gigantic, nothing that couldn’t be written off as odd coincidence or luck.  Yet Colonel-Commissar Gaunt and his men are following the crusade path of Saint Sabbat, and they do seem to attract a lot of coincidences and a lot of luck.  It never wins the day for them, and it never leaves much in the way of evidence, but it is there and the colonel-commissar is often left feeling a bit confused and in awe of it in the aftermath.
            Y’see, Timmy, the Scooby Ambiguity works great as a thinly-connected side note, but the minute I make it a major element of my main plot, things start to crumble.  Either I’m writing about a world where X can happen or I’m not.  By its very nature, the ambiguity doesn’t fit within my established world, so making it a major part of my plot creates a jarring distraction that breaks the flow.
            This isn’t to say I can’t have a story about homicidal psychic-energy monsters, but if I do it needs to be clear from the start that this is a world where such things can exist.  If not, pulling some bizarre element out of left field is going to alienate a lot more readers than it impresses.
            And alienated readers often find something else to do rather than finish reading.
            Next time, not to sound morose, but I wanted to talk a bit about death.
            Until then, go write.
October 21, 2010 / 2 Comments

Miss Scarlett in the Study with the Lamp

So, as we’re getting into the season of all things eerie and mysterious, I thought I’d babble on about a little problem I’ve seen once or thrice. The nice thing about it is, like many things, it’s pretty easy to avoid once you notice it.

Just like you can have false drama, it’s also possible to have false mysteries. These stories are boring and frustrating more than interesting. I’ve come across them a lot in genre stories and scripts, and once or thrice in political thrillers.

A quick recap…

A mystery is when the main character(or characters) and the audience are aware that an important fact has been hidden from them, and the story usually involves the search for that unknown fact. Who killed Mr. Boddy? What room did they kill him in? What did they use to do the deed? And why does that reanimated mummy want that old Egyptian coin? At it’s simplest, a mystery is a question someone in your story is asking and trying to find the answer to.

In a good mystery the answers always exist. There are people to ask, clues to examine, deductions to make, and so forth. There’s always someone who knows the answer. It might be the murderer, a cult member, the retired beat cop, anyone. But someone has the answers the characters–and by extension, the readers– are looking for.

Now, here’s where some folks go wrong.

In an attempt to make their main character seem skilled or clever, I’ve seen many fledgling writers solve the mystery in the opening pages of their story. The solution is revealed to the main character right up front and then the rest of the narrative becomes all about keeping this information from the audience. The mystery’s solved, the answer just isn’t being given out until the end.

For example, I read one book recently that was a take on the Grail myth. Two parallel characters– one during the Crusades, the other in modern times– are on quests to find the secret of the Holy Grail. However, the first character gets taken aside by her father less than 1/5 into the book and–I kid you not–it essentially goes like this…


“Come, daughter. I must tell you a story.”

He talked long into the night and into the morning. His mouth went dry several times. As the sun broke over the hills, he finished.

“This is amazing,” she finally said. “You’ve known this all along?”

“Yes, and now you must keep this fantastic secret, too, until you pass it on to your child.”


I’m not exaggerating. That’s almost word for word what the author has on the page.

So, the story then covers another 300 pages during which Phoebe (not her real name) risks the lives of her friends and makes seemingly-irrational decisions to protect a secret she’s really just hiding from the readers. In the end, we don’t even get the answer from Phoebe. The author abandons the whole Crusades-era thread with Phoebe cornered by her enemies and just has someone else tell the modern-era character what happened to her. “Ah, the story of Phoebe? A sad tale, really. You see, when she was cornered by her enemies she…”

That was it. One person has the answers for the whole story, dies “off camera,” and someone else just walks in to read the answer out of a book. No, seriously. The modern character finds this historian and he actually reads her the answer out of a book.

This is not a mystery. Sure you can pitch it as the mystery of the grail, but it’s not. It’s just withheld information. A successful mystery has certain key elements which I’ve mentioned before. The reason this sort of story structure fails is that it violates two of these minimum requirements.

The first of these is that a mystery needs to have a resolution. The characters are searching for that hidden piece of information and they must find it for the mystery to work. The problem here is that the answer was found early in the story. So… mystery solved. In the example above, we were searching for the secret of the Grail and found it on page 81. The rest of the story is unnecessary.

The second element is that in a good mystery we like the protagonists and can relate to them. In any good piece of storytelling–whatever the genre–the characters should mirror the audience. It’s important to them that the answer is found, thus it’s important to us that the answer is found. We want to stick with them until they find those solutions and resolve things.

Y’see, Timmy, the main character can’t be the person holding the answers. In order to do that, they have to hide those facts from the reader (like Phoebe did). Now Phoebe isn’t mirroring the audience, she’s keeping them at arm’s length. The moment she starts concealing things, our protagonist has just alienated the reader.

For the record, this also holds for any Mr. X/ femme fatale type characters who make vague statements or drop cryptic hints. If they’re only here for a page or two, great. But these people can’t be following the main character around for two hundred pages or else they become protagonists, too. And, as I just mentioned above, they’ll be protagonists we don’t like.

If you want to put a mystery in your story, that’s great. Mysteries rock and great mysteries get remembered forever. Just make sure it’s a real mystery, with all the necessary elements it needs to work.

Next time, it being the season and all, I’d like to talk with you about horror.

Until then, go write.