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Magic on the Edges

February 15th, 2013

by K. V. Johansen

Magic—not spells and hurled fireballs, but that inspiring combination of wonder, awe, and excitement that drives artistic creation—is, for me, born on the edges of things. Edges mean boundaries and borders, tension and change and flow. In the landscapes of fiction the rise of desert into mountain, the uneasy meeting of the cleared and settled with the primeval forest, the hint of island shadow on the horizon of the sea, are the sorts of places that suggest Story. They are zones of transformation where things can or might or should happen, the places where change is found, and change coming for good or ill to a character or to their world is what drives stories.

A lot of my favourite stories, the ones I read when young and which fuelled my desire to tell stories myself, start off with edges. The Shire of The Hobbit (never so named in it, of course) is a domesticated land on the edges of a great unknown, but the unknown forces its way in over the borders, prowling on the fringes of collective hobbit awareness. Wolves came out of the wild in a hard winter; goblins were fought by heroic ancestors; “lads and lasses” used to run off into the blue for adventures, and dwarves now pass through, travelling on their own mysterious business, while in The Lord of the Rings itself strangers begin to cross the southern border and like distant thunder, there are rumours of unease in the wider world, though the sun still shines on the bucolic idyll of Hobbiton. In Sutcliff’s The Lantern-Bearers, Aquila lives in an edge time and an edge place. Rome is withdrawing from Britain, the empire is failing, the barbarian raiders are settling and staying. The frontier of civilization is retreating like the tide, and an era is coming to an end. The kingdom of Damar, in McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, has beyond its frontier an unknown land of strange and dangerous magic, out of which the hero Aerin’s mysterious mother appeared. Taran, in the Chronicles of Prydain, lives with his elderly guardian in a cottage surrounded by forest, where a straying boy can be pursued by a monstrous huntsman out of myth and rescued by a legendary hero only a few miles from the safety of his home. The known and explored universe in Cherryh’s Chanur series is revealed to share a frontier with unknown aliens; that discovery disrupts the balance of power, creating new lines of tension between the several intelligent species of ship-captain Pyanfar’s known world. In Glen Cook’s Black Company series, the political world is on an epochal edge, an empire breaking apart.

The heroes of these stories that played such a role in forming the compost out of which my own stories began to grow are on the edges themselves. Bilbo is not, at first, an edge character, but he becomes one by daring to cross over the boundaries of his illusory safety. Afterwards, he never fits properly into his former place again. “… Bilbo was cracked, and Frodo’s cracking,” says Ted Sandyman: Frodo is already regarded as odd, not quite fitting into his proper place as a moneyed gentleman of the Shire, and he is restless, hearing the call of the road. Aquila, a British-born Roman officer whose family is generations removed from Rome, stands on an edge between places and times and between duty and family. Aerin is born on the edge, child of a suspected foreign witch, never accepted, never her father’s heir. Taran, a foundling ambitious for heroism, stands at the edge of himself, always looking outwards to become something more. Pyanfar finds herself an edge person whose decisions push her out of her place and into a role where she stands between species, negotiating a new balance of power. The mercenary physician Croaker is on the edge, ever observing and recording the history happening about him, standing back from it all, until he falls into the heart of a disintegrating world and pulls the company with him into a long transformation.

In my own writing, it’s the characters who exist on the edges who most fascinate me and fire my imagination. They’re the wanderers who are not wholly of the societies through which they pass, or the outsiders not entirely at home with or accepted by the people amongst whom they must live. Wren, Rookfeather, and Kokako of the Torrie books, Maurey and Nethin from The Warlocks of Talverdin, and Moth, Mikki, Holla-Sayan, and Attalissa of the Blackdog world are all edge people, by choice or by circumstances or both. Of the nine above, only two, Wren and Kokako, are entirely human, and that’s another edge that drives my imagination when I sit down to write. By being outside of humanity, even if only a little, they are immediately set apart, and by being apart, they become the observers, the restless, the ones who will most likely be the first to notice the shadows on the horizon and decide to investigate, or who will be that shadow on the horizon themselves. It’s characters such as these who kindle my urge to find out more about them by telling their stories. In setting out to discover them through their stories, I have to build and explore their worlds, which leads to adventure, history, politics, gods and goddess and demons, battles with enemies and solitary struggles with the self in the dark, but in all my fantasy novels, it starts with that one character on the edge of being something else, and a horizon, a frontier, that must be crossed. That’s where magic lies.

About the Guest Author

K. V. Johansen


K. V. Johansen

K. V. Johansen was born in Kingston, Ontario, and is the author of numerous works for children, teens, and adults. She predominantly writes secondary-world fantasy but is also the author of some science fiction, picture books, and two books on the history of children’s fantasy literature. Johansen has an MA from the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto. Her lifelong interest in ancient and medieval history and the history of languages has had a great influence on her writing and world-building. Aside from travelling to the Republic of Macedonia in 2010 to receive the first-ever “International Ana Frank Award for Children’s Literature [in Macedonian]”, меѓународната награда „Ана Франк“ за најдобра книга, for the Macedonian translation of Torrie and the Snake-Prince, Тори и принцот-змија, she has not done anything terribly interesting or adventurous in her life; she’s been too busy writing. Her most recent book is Blackdog, an epic fantasy for adults published by Pyr. She lives in New Brunswick, Canada, with a wicked white dog who, thus far, has not evinced any sign of being a shapeshifter, though if slipper-stealing constitutes evidence of a demoniacal nature, he might quality.

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Cross-Pollination

February 7th, 2013

by Richard Lee Byers

For me, there are two different kinds of inspiration or perhaps levels of inspiration. We can ask what moves a writer to write at all. We can also ask where he finds the seeds for particular stories.

My desire to write came from an early love of stories and a belief that I could spin tales of my own. I knew I had an active imagination and a knack for language, so why shouldn’t I follow in the hallowed footsteps of Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. G. Wells, the first two writers (aside from Dr. Seuss) I remember reading?

Later, I found out there was some tough slogging to be had by treading in those footsteps. A writing career was hard work and demoralizing, too, when rejection slips and bad reviews flew my way and a new release failed to find an audience.

But I also learned that on those days when it’s going well, writing is satisfying and sometimes even fun. And, I heard from readers who liked my stuff. Together, those two things, combined with pure stubbornness, kept me going through the bad moments and keep me banging away at the computer still.

The inspirations for particular stories can come from many places and be specific or otherwise. I like learning about science, particularly astronomy and astrophysics. Given that most of my work is fantasy of one sort or another, you’d assume that little of that information turns up in it, and you’d be right. But I think the pure wonder involved in contemplating the collisions of galaxies, M theory, and stuff like that expands my mind and imagination.

I enjoy learning about pretty much anything, really, history in particular, and that’s information that sometimes does inspire a specific story idea or plot development. The results can be far more interesting and original than relying on genre tropes alone.

Fiction sometimes inspires me in a more specific way than the simple love of stories I alluded to before. My novel Pathfinder Tales: Called to Darkness pays tribute to my first literary hero Edgar Rice Burroughs. I analyzed how a Burroughs novel works and tried to hit similar beats and achieve a similar tone in a story all my own.

Similarly, I might not have come up with my “Brotherhood of the Griffon” Forgotten Realms series if I didn’t admire the historical adventure novels of Bernard Cornwell. His books help get me excited about the possibilities of a mercenary company fighting in Faerûn.

And when I read the urban fantasy of Simon R. Green and Jim Butcher, I realized, hey, I like this genre, and I bet I could write it. I cross-pollenated the conventions of the form with my love of poker and came up with Blind God’s Bluff.

Speaking of cross-pollination, if a writer has an understanding of multiple genres, he can sometimes come up with something good by combining them. I’ve read a lot of mysteries, and that’s no doubt why I used a whodunit as one of the major plot threads in The Rite. The Black Bouquet is both a sword-and-sorcery story and a caper novel, while Queen of the Depths is simultaneously heroic fantasy and a spy story.

So, okay. I guess that covers what inspires me. Well, except that I left out making the rent.

About the Guest Author

Richard Lee Byers


Jason Sizemore

Richard Lee Byers is the author of forty fantasy and horror novels including Called to Darkness, his first Pathfinder novel, Blind God’s Bluff, the start of a new urban fantasy series, and Prophet of the Dead, the latest in a series of books set in the Forgotten Realms universe. He is also the creator of The Impostor, a post-apocalyptic superhero series, has published dozens of short stories, writes a monthly feature for the SF news site Airlock Alpha, and contributes to the Night Bazaar, the Night Shade Books authors’ blog.

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Gardens in the Blueprints

November 15th, 2012

by Dave Gross

At conventions, you might hear discussions of whether a writer outlines a novel or prefers to write “by the seat of her pants.” Much as I love hearing the word “pantsers” uttered thirty times in an hour, I prefer George R.R. Martin’s description of writers as “architects” or “gardeners.”

The great thing about being an architect is that you have a blueprint from the start. You know where things are meant to go. Outlining makes it easier to lay pipe for character development and plot or dialogue callbacks. Outlining makes it less likely that you’ll write yourself into a dead end or need to discard whole chapters in revision.

The horrible thing about being an architect is that you lose some of the pleasure of discovery, which gardeners face with virtually every scene. To a pure gardener, an outline can be a cage. Where’s the fun once you already know what’s going to happen?

In my heart, I sometimes wish I were a gardener. But because I often write for shared-world settings, it’s better that I’m an architect. My editors need to know where I’ll take the characters and how they’ll interact with the established systems of the world: magic, culture, politics, and more. The editors must also play traffic cop to ensure that we various writers don’t contradict each other. To a shared-world editor, an outline isn’t just helpful, it’s mandatory.

Fortunately, outlining and “pantsing” aren’t mutually exclusive pursuits. While I prepare massive outlines, I still find plenty of fertile spots to do a little gardening both before and during composition.

Planting Characters
Even before the outline, the architect’s first opportunity for a bit of gardening starts with the characters. Almost all of the characters in my Forgotten Realms or Pathfinder novels are ones I created. While much of the pleasure of discovery comes from sketching them out at the start, there’s plenty to come during composition. Every time they speak, I enjoy the discovery of both their inner lives and their relationships to others.

Sometimes I also include prominent figures from the setting or ask permission to include another author’s character. In those cases I’m not seeking discovery so much as trying to represent the characters as faithfully as possible—I suppose it’s a bit like writing Spider-Man or Raylan Givens on Justified. These characters usually enjoy immunity from permanent change, but with some novels you never can tell: Sometimes I have permission—or orders—to whack one.

Going Rogue
While I stick to the map most of the time, I don’t hesitate to take a detour if I realize it’ll make the journey more exciting. If a chapter I outlined to open with a fight feels abrupt, during composition I might reverse it to build suspense before all hell breaks loose. If I feel the manuscript is coming up with way too much exposition, I might shift from the outline to create a dialogue or action scene instead. In either case, that revision gives me a sense of discovery even though I know I’m still headed for the same final destination.

My most common deviation from an outline is to combine or delete chapters. To some degree I do that because the manuscript is running long, but sometimes it’s also to diminish redundant or repetitive scenes. I’m finding the shortcuts that I couldn’t see from the map.

And of course sometimes I just come up with a better idea than I had while outlining. If it isn’t radically different, I simply go with it. Only once (so far) has the editor disliked the new route, but removing it was a matter of deleting paragraphs, not whole chapters.

Little Things
My favorite discoveries are often the tiny details. Lately those have included gestures and phrases in my Pathfinder Tales novels. For instance, a woman concerned about her pregnancy draws the spiral of Pharasma over her swelling belly to ward off death. Low-born characters from Cheliax “shoot the tines” as a rude gesture. Those who worship Lady Luck might grumble, “Desna weeps,” when thing don’t go their way, or they might draw her wings over their hearts when facing danger—like when cheating at cards.

In my latest Pathfinder Tales novel, Queen of Thorns, I enjoyed extrapolating certain cultural and magical aspects of the elves and gnomes of the setting. Elves are no more all the same than humans are, and while the common folk celebrate the Ritual of Stardust, the aristocrats host a Midsummer Masquerade complete with “trees” that produce wine served in goblets formed by the tears of ensorcelled trolls.

More discovery came while exploring the details of how worshipers of Calistria celebrate her three “stings”: lust, guile, and revenge. When Radovan first meets the inquisitor Kemeili, he enjoys a taste of two of those right away. My “discovery” came not in the form of invention but in application: finding ways not only to show off the established setting but also to connect them to characters and their hidden motivations.

All too often I hear self-professed “pantsers” complain of having trouble getting started or of getting stuck halfway through a great story. And I know there are times when a dedicated outliner faces a scene that seemed great in outline but later feels absolutely worthless. No matter whether you think of yourself as an architect or a gardener, consider mixing those philosophies to enjoy the best of both worlds.

About the Guest Author

Dave Gross


Dave Gross

Dave Gross is the author of several recent Pathfinder Tales novels, including Prince of Wolves, Master of Devils, and Queen of Thorns. His Forgotten Realms novels include Black Wolf and Lord of Stormweather, among others. His stories have appeared in anthologies ranging from Realms of Dragons to Tales of the Far West, and more recently in Shotguns v. Cthulhu and The Lion and the Aardvark. He has edited magazines including Dragon, Star Wars Insider, and Amazing Stories. While he continues to write novels and short fiction, he is also the lead writer at Overhaul games, developers of Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition.

Check out “Killing Time,” a free Pathfinder Tale, as well as a sample chapter from Dave’s latest novel, Queen of Thorns.

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Conversing with Giants

November 8th, 2012

by Christopher Paul Carey

“Assist the new without sacrificing the old.” This line from Thomas Mann is something I feel in my bones as I write, and I think every writer has to come to terms with the notion, whether it’s confronted consciously or it squirms up unrecognized from beneath the surface. For some, the word “tradition” can connote tired and worn stodginess, but for me it’s the living root that taps the well of creativity, a sort of metaphysical channel to my long-gone peers from the past.

When I was completing The Song of Kwasin—the concluding novel in a historical fantasy trilogy started by Philip José Farmer back in the 1970s—I had some big decisions to make. One of the most important was whether to write in a more modern style and to avoid many of the literary conventions common to novels of the mid-1970s that have since fallen into disuse. I weighed both sides, since at the time I didn’t know whether the novel would sell as a standalone volume or as part of an omnibus of the series. I knew many twenty-first-century publishers wouldn’t grok a book written in the style of 1976 that also unapologetically drew on styles over a hundred years old.

But I stuck with the feeling in my gut: that to respect the work I was about to undertake, I needed to revel in what had gone before. I knew all too well the literary roots of the Khokarsa trilogy. At a young age Phil Farmer had come to love the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard, and so had I. These two authors were the primary inspirations for Hadon of Ancient Opar, Flight to Opar, and the outline and partial manuscript Phil had provided me with so that I could complete The Song of Kwasin. Phil, I knew, had adopted his own gritty, more realistic style in the first two novels, and yet still somehow managed to capture the essence—the fun and wonder—of the pulp tropes employed in the adventure tales of Burroughs and Haggard. Moreover, Phil’s approach subtly mixed SFnal elements with the fantasy of these authors, but did so in an artful way that did not overbear the traditions that inspired the Khokarsa series. So while I worked on the novel, I knew I not only had to account for the pulp tradition, but also for Phil’s New Wave SFF innovations with it. To do this I looked to the body of Phil’s work, in particular themes and sentiments he had used throughout his literary career. I explored how Phil had already laid the groundwork to interplay these elements with the traditions established by Burroughs and Haggard, sowing them into The Song of Kwasin where it seemed most likely they’d organically take root.

Of course, my own innovations grow alongside Phil’s in the book. I don’t know if the modern reader (or even I) can see them, since we’re often blind to the conventions and styles of our own times. But I know they’re there, and that a future reader some thirty-five or forty years from now will be able to see them plainly. Writing is a dialogue that takes place over centuries. As the conversation turns, new topics and feelings and questions and insights arise, all of which are born out of what has gone before. Move the conversation forward, but don’t forget what’s been said.

That’s one of the things that inspires me most when I write: the opportunity to converse with the literary giants of the past, and the potential to carry on the conversation they started into new realms. Who knows how long our species might carry on such a dialogue, or where it might lead? I honestly don’t know. But meanwhile I’m having a grand old time chatting.

About the Guest Author

Christopher Paul Carey


Christopher Paul Carey

Christopher Paul Carey is the coauthor with Philip José Farmer of Gods of Opar: Tales of Lost Khokarsa, and the author of Exiles of Kho, a prelude to the Khokarsa series. His short fiction may be found in such anthologies as Tales of the Shadowmen, The Worlds of Philip José Farmer, and The Avenger: The Justice, Inc. Files. He is an editor with Paizo Publishing on the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Chris and his wife Laura live in Seattle, Washington.

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Many Sources

November 1st, 2012

by Maurice Broaddus

The whole idea of inspiration fascinates me. In my quiet moments, I believe that I don’t have much of an imagination. So many of my stories and characters spring from my own life that I often feel that I’m not so much “writing” as I am “transcribing.” Also, I consider myself a spiritual person, thus created in God’s (the ultimate Creator) image, thus I could say that the Holy Spirit is my Muse. So in a sentence, life is my ultimate inspiration and writing is my mission.

When I wrote King Maker, the first book in what would become my Knights of Breton Court trilogy, it sprang from those two things coming together. I was a volunteer at a ministry called Outreach Inc, which works with homeless teenagers. I was teaching a creative writing class and was encouraging the kids to imagine themselves in different settings. It became quickly apparent that they could barely imagine themselves surviving to next week. Life had stolen their ability to dream . . . but they still had stories to tell. I threw out the line “you could be anything you want, princes, princesses, knights” and that stuck with me. What if they were, right where they are? From wanting to share their stories, my novel was born. That’s the way it typically goes with me. My stories spring from my life in a bunch of different ways:

-My identity: We all have those existential moments of wondering “Who am I?” Wrestling with that question plays itself out as a theme in many of my stories. From my short story, “Family Business” (Weird Tales), where I contemplated the idea of being “The Other” within my own family; to “Warrior of the Sunrise” (The New Hero, vol. I), where issues of race, spirit, and family collide.

-My faith: Matters of religion and personal faith fascinate me and form a good part of who I am. They play in my imagination and pop out in interesting ways, such as my novella, Orgy of Souls (Apex Books), as I wrestled with the idea of the role faith plays in how we choose to live our lives. Or the idea for my anthology series, Dark Faith (Apex Books).

-My tragedies: Writing is my therapy. Writing allows me to put some distance between me, what’s going on, and what you are feeling. I am able to examine it from a variety of perspectives (not just what the main character is going through but how it impacts those around her/him). I can talk things through using my characters, dig deep within and plumb their hearts and hidden feelings and truths. My story, “Rainfall” (Cemetery Dance), springs to mind as a recent example of this.

-My children: nothing delights and stirs your wonder like listening to your children. As I hang out with them and their friends, I feel the need to memorialize this time in words somehow. I can literally feel the mental gears turning as I think about how to capture their lives and spirit in story.

As writers, we give up our lives. We cut open our emotional veins and bleed all over the page for our readers’ entertainment. There is a certain amount of fearlessness and abandon as we put ourselves out there, exposing ourselves. We are the court jesters speaking truth to power.

I am surrounded by reminders of who the ultimate Author is. In some ways I see myself as joining in His creative work and mission whenever I create a story. I am also keenly aware that I’m often working out my spiritual journey as much through my art as through my faith. Life is wondrous, even the dark sides of it, and there is a beauty not only to Creation but in the act of creation.

Most importantly, I live an interesting life. I meet people, encounter strange situations, and have weird dreams. We all do. So pay attention to the life that you’re living. There are stories all around you just waiting to be told.

About the Guest Author

Maurice Broaddus


Maurice Broaddus

Maurice Broaddus has written hundreds of short stories, essays, novellas, and articles. His dark fiction has been published in numerous magazines, anthologies, and web sites, including Cemetery Dance, Apex Magazine, Black Static, and Weird Tales Magazine. He is the co-editor of the Dark Faith anthology series (Apex Books) and the author of the urban fantasy trilogy, Knights of Breton Court (Angry Robot Books). He has been a teaching artist for over five years, teaching creative writing to elementary, middle, and high school students, as well as adults.

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