Guest Post: Creative History: On Building Deviltry

Today’s post is a guest blog post by my friend, Steph Lehenbauer. She’s recently published a really awesome novella about a kick ass Native American woman who is a ship captain/space cowgirl who kicks a lot of ass. Deviltry is the first novella in a series that is part Western, part Firefly, and a whole lot of excellence. I’ve read it, I loved it, and I suggest you read on to learn more about it, then go check it out for yourself.


Sallyblogimage
Hello, Jason’s blog readers. It is I, the Batman!

WAIT NO. Not again. Damn it, I’ve got to stop that. My name is Stephanie, AKA S.E. Lehenbauer. I am the author of Deviltry, the first novella of in my space western series. The stories follow the adventures of the spacecraft Wanderlust and her crew.

DeviltryCoverMedium
Jason’s been kind enough to let me take over his blog today, to talk about world building. Specifically, world building around real history. Deviltry takes place in the 1860s, but it’s definitely not the same world as we know it. Earth is now Terra Fragmentum, a collection of small planets held together in Earth’s old place by the gravitational pull of the moon. (Ah, the creative liberties we can take with science.) These frags are the remnants of Earth, after being attacked by aliens roughly 40 years before our story begins.

So, it’s still Earth, kind of. They are still the same countries (for the most part), and the cultures are still quite similar to what they were in the 1860s. However, contact with aliens introduced humanity to space travel, to an alien internet system that people use but don’t understand yet, to advances in machinery and medicine. It’s Wild Wild West meets Farscape, in a way.

The tricky part of this kind of world building is cherry-picking from real history. Using historical figures, places, events, and so on, is a great way to ground your fantasy world. Steampunk books almost always mention Queen Victoria for this very reason—just that simple mention of a real figure we all have some awareness of instantly sets the groundwork in a reader’s mind. But due to the geography or cultural upset in your story, you may not be able to keep everything.

For example: I knew that I would be focusing quite a bit on Native American culture and history, so I chose to keep as many events related to the tension between American settlers and Native Americans as I could. Sally’s parents, Kit Carson and the Cheyenne woman Making-Our-Road were real people who were really married for a time (although as far as my research could tell they never had a child). I turned up some interesting facts about Carson’s involvement with the Mexican-American war, and because it gave significance to an event in Sally’s fictional life, I also kept as much of that war as I could.

However, the American Civil War has been completely erased from our history. (In fact, the stories take place during what would have been the Civil War years.) The reason for that is two-fold: first, America is divided into two separate frags. For a world that has only just discovered and begun to use spacecraft, a war between frags doesn’t seem plausible. The other reason is more complicated. When I divided up the world into frags, I just sort of took a marker to a printed map and damned the consequences. Whatever got a line drawn through it was what got blown up. The southern United States and Mexico didn’t end up with very much water (like, hardly any at all…it’s been a huge annoyance to write around), so the economic make-up of America is very different. One of the biggest factors in the Civil War was the fact that the South was the main source of agriculture, while the North was industrializing. Without water, the South can hardly be the agricultural center it was in real history; so with that factor gone, the War became even more difficult to account for.

In addition to deciding which parts of history go or stay, you must also consider how real-life events would have been shaped by the factors in your new world. In real-life London, there was indeed a Reform Act of 1832. It was an Act of Parliament that made changes to England’s electoral system. In my story, I needed a political movement that would set up the nation of Seachrist: the single moon-based territory of Terra Fragmentum. The concept of Seachrist came from the minds of a few upper-class English families, and the timing of the act was perfect, so I borrowed it. Now the Reform Act of 1832 was a declaration by Parliament to colonize the moon. That little bit of truth within the lie gives my fictional world enough familiarity to create that groundwork I mentioned earlier.

Being a student of history is incredibly helpful to an author. It can, at times, also become a great source of procrastination as you spend weeks picking what stays and what goes. Not that I did that. Definitely not. The single piece of advice I might have would be to narrow your focus as much as possible. I knew that I’d be visiting certain countries and nations within the Wanderlust’s adventures, so I kept my focus to just those places’ histories. When I could, I narrowed it down farther to specific states or cities. (When a shiny thing about the development of Alaska popped up in my research, I had to firmly sit it down and say, “No. I’m not going to Alaska. There’s just no time. I’m sorry Alaska, you will just have to go without.” I filed the shiny fact away for something else and went on.)

Thanks for letting me crash your joint! You’re all invited to the Batcave any time. Earlier this month, I was at the Ravenhart Press blog discussing the ideas of diversity within Deviltry; if that’s something you are interested in, please check it out!

Deviltry is out now from LARRIKINbooks at most major booksellers. (Buying the paperback copy at Amazon nets you the Kindle version for free!) You can find more information and links at my website, www.selehenbauer.com/books/.

Free Nukes in Chapter One

Nuclear ExplosionI’m currently reading a series of books by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan: The Strain, The Fall, and The Night Eternal. I’m not reading them strictly for fun; they’re part of my research into apocalyptic stories with supernatural or paranormal elements, in order to better understand the genre. These books deal with a vampire apocalypse, with vampirism spreading to victims through parasitic blood worms that infect the body after the person is bitten. They’re a much darker, more gruesome look at vampires than the Anne Rice or Stephanie Meyer variety. In many ways, the series has more in common with zombie horror films in the style of the Resident Evil series.

I’ve just started the third book, and . . . I’ve got some issues with it right off the bat (spoilers ahead!).

In the first book, a Master vampire arrives in New York city, his coffin delivered in the cargo hold of an airplane. This starts off with a feeling very similar to how Dracula traveled by ship in the original Bram Stoker story. The plane lands with all the passengers and crew dead, and unknown to anyone, already incubating the parasitic blood worms. Over the next few days, all the dead turn into vampires, then return home because the remaining shreds of humanity fill them with the urge to be with their families. Their families become the next victims, resulting in hundreds of new vampires being born. Throughout the rest of the book, the vampire plague spreads more and more, unable to be stopped.

In the second book, it gets even worse. More planes of infected victims land around the globe, spreading the plague to more and more cities. The vampires increase their population each night until they have the strength of armies. Some humans try to fight back and hold them off, but they fail. Eventually the entire world starts to fall.

Then at the start of the third book . . . we skip ahead to two years later in the first four pages, getting only a brief summary of how the vampire hordes seized power, toppled every world government, and turned the human race into slaves. We don’t actually get to see any of that conflict, or really understand how no government in the world was able to put up any resistance. It’s just summarized in the prologue in a very disappointing fashion.

It’s basically the exact same thing that happens in the first 30 seconds of Resident Evil 3:

The reason I think the writers do this is the same reason I think all apocalyptic story writers skip over the apocalypse: they don’t want to deal with all the hard questions. How did the vampires stamp out the resistance so easily? How did they coordinate this on such a global scale in such a short time period (compare the two years here to the length of any real-life war, such as a timetable of the events in World War II). The reader is told the vampires destroyed most of the world’s planes to restrict travel, but no explanation is given about how they pulled it off. We also find out the vampires destroyed most of the world’s arsenal of nuclear weapons, with no explanation of how.

It seems to me that the writers wanted to write the next stage of their story as a human rebellion against their vampire overlords, but they just didn’t want to deal with the complicated questions of how the vampires became overlords in the first place. It’s like the first Matrix movie: we’re shown a world where humans are subjugated, given very brief explanations that provide no real answers, and we’re simply asked to accept that this is how things are. The rest of the story can’t proceed if these pieces aren’t in place at the beginning, so they’re simply placed there.

I see this over and over again in apocalyptic stories, and it’s one of the specific issues I decided not to repeat in my own novels, starting with Manifestation. I don’t want to skip over the apocalypse, the most interesting part of the story. I don’t want to drop a ready-to-go shattered civilization in front of the reader so they can see the downtrodden humans rise up and overcome the darkness. I want to actually shatter the civilization, step by step, and show every piece along the way.

In fact, it took me six books to do it.

But one of the worst crimes I feel this book committed, and the one that inspired this blog post, is that the characters aren’t even shown overcoming one of the big obstacles of the story. See, one thing they’ve learned is that they can’t simply attack the Master vampire and kill him with swords or a stake through the heart. He can switch bodies and implant his essence and his consciousness into a new host body. In order to destroy him, they need to destroy his metaphysical tie to the earth, which is how he draws his immortality. In order to do this, they need to scorch the earth itself (specifically, the land where the Master’s original grave was) with a cleansing fire. It’s explained that in biblical times, this “cleansing fire” was the sort of divine wrath that struck down Sodom and Gomorrah. And that the only modern-day way to duplicate it is a nuclear bomb. In other words, they need to drop a nuke on the Master’s graveyard.

And one of the main characters gets a nuclear bomb on page 21.

We’re given a hand-wave summary of how the character made contact with smugglers who operate in secret, working against the vampire government. That these smugglers were able to get an old Soviet bomb they bought from former generals who are selling off military goods behind the vampire’s backs. And that the main character was able to (somehow?) acquire a huge arsenal of other smuggled goods to trade for the bomb. No explanation about how all this was pulled off in this post-apocalyptic, vampire-controlled world. The nuke is basically just dropped into the character’s lap with no effort.

Now, I’m sure there will be tons of conflict and struggle later on to actually find the Master’s grave and nuke it. I’m sure there will be plenty of tension building up to that point. But I’m very disappointed that there wasn’t even a full chapter devoted to the seemingly-impossible-yet-somehow-so-easy task of acquiring a nuclear bomb. Heck, even the summary of how it was acquired only lasted two paragraphs.

I’m determined not to hand-wave any difficult questions like this. If my characters ever need to acquire a nuke (wait, that’s a spoiler for Book Three, Collapse), I’m going to make sure a lot of effort is put into it. No free nukes in chapter one for my characters.

And no skipping over the destruction of all civilization.


mani_promoManifestation is available in paperback format through:

CreateSpace and Amazon

and in ebook format through:

Kindle and Nook

Distance and Objectivity

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m currently working on two different revision projects. One is Contamination, the sequel to Manifestation. I’m currently about 80% of the way through Draft 2 (and I need to update that progress bar on the right to show that). I’m mostly working on line edits, making sure everything reads well and is clear, adding descriptive details where needed, and looking for plot holes that need filling or scenes that need cutting.

The second project is my Rowan University Master’s in Writing Thesis Project, a.k.a. Arcana Revived Volume Six (currently untitled). I’m pretty much doing the same thing there that I am on Contamination: basic edits and cleaning up the prose. I’m not to the point yet where I can make major changes since I need more time analyzing what is already there. I already have a few ideas on chapters that need to be cut, but I’m not to the point yet of making those decisions.

Normally, I wouldn’t be working on both of these projects at once. After all, Contamination is book two, so why be working on book six? Well, because I need to for school. Book six obviously won’t be published for quite some time, and I’m only doing the amount of work on it now that I need to for it to be “complete” in terms of what the thesis project requires. Mostly this means focusing on polishing up the first 30,000 words, and leaving the rest for later.

However, I’m running into a slight issue on Book Six that I’m not running into on Contamination, and I think I’ve figured out why. I don’t have enough distance from the first draft yet.

See, I wrote the first draft of Contamination for NaNoWriMo 2013. I’ve had close to a year and a half to get some objectivity about what I’ve written, so I can look at it and decide what needs to be changed, what needs to be cut, what’s working, and what isn’t. It’s a lot easier to say “Okay this is crap, it needs to go” on a scene or chapter that I wrote so long ago. It’s not so easy to do that with Book Six, which I just wrote a few months ago, for NaNoWriMo 2014.

The result is that I feel like I’m slogging through each chapter on Book Six, but I have no trouble with Contamination. The revisions on Book Six feel too “big.” I’m having trouble looking at individual issues instead of seeing the whole novel as, from the point of view of my critical side, one big steaming pile of crap. I’m still too connected to the rush and joy I felt writing the first draft and all the fragile emotions that go along with it.

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King says that when you finish a draft, you should put it in a drawer for six weeks or more. This is so that you can come at it with a fresh perspective. I feel like I need a little more than six weeks. Maybe six months? Which means that if I didn’t have a deadline, I’d be shelving everything to do with Book Six for a long time, until I’m more ready to deal with it. Which is besides the fact that I’ve got four other novels to revise before I touch that one.

I’m not really sure how to address this issue right now, since I need at least one revision of the first 30,000 words before March 1st. Which is totally doable for me in terms of the amount of work that I need to get done in that time frame, but less doable from an emotional point of view.

For the time being, my solution is to focus on Contamination. I’ve got a self-imposed deadline to finish that one by March 1st as well, and I’m more confident in my ability to do that. And maybe, by working on a different project for awhile, I’ll remove myself from Book Six a bit and be able to come back in during crunch time and get it done.


mani_promoManifestation is available in paperback format through:

CreateSpace and Amazon

and in ebook format through:

Kindle and Nook

Schedules and Deadlines

I don’t do well at keeping myself motivated.

In my academic life, schedules and deadlines are an important part of keeping me on task. I’m handed down schedules from the professor in each class, and individual assignments have deadlines that are usually nonnegotiable. Most of my professors at Rowan tend to forgive if you are late with an assignment, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t strict about when things are due. I consider this a good thing, because as it turns out, I really need those deadlines to make sure I get things done.

Over winter break, I accomplished almost nothing useful. I had plans to finish the second draft of Contamination, but I had a hard time getting much work done because I didn’t have any kind of set routine. Sure, I can say to myself “This revision is going to be done by January 30th!” But that doesn’t mean I’ll do it. In a way, this is one of the downsides to going indie. I’m my own boss, I set my own deadlines, but I also have to be solely responsible for making sure those deadlines are met. There’s no one else who can hold me accountable (though sometimes my friends on Twitter will step up and give me a hard time until I buckle down and get to work).

Now that school is back up, I have some deadlines again. Not for Contamination, since that isn’t a school project. However, Arcana Revived Volume Six (currently untitled) IS a school project. I wrote it as my master’s thesis project. As such, I have deadlines imposed upon me to get a certain amount of revision done by certain dates, in order to keep up with the class schedule. Combined with the feedback and notes I got from the professor, I have a revision plan, a deadline, and a schedule worked out for how to get these revisions done before March 1st.

And while this doesn’t technically have anything to do with Contamination, I’m able to use this externally-imposed deadline as a way to reinforce my own self-imposed deadline. Which means that I’ll be revising both Contamination and Volume Six at the same time (one for school, one for publication). If things go according to plan, I’ll have the current draft of Contamination finished before March 1st, and ready to send out for critiques.

Feel free to nag me about it in order to keep me on task. Because like I said, I tend to need external motivation.


mani_promoManifestation is available in paperback format through:

CreateSpace and Amazon

and in ebook format through:

Kindle and Nook

Zero Echo Shadow Prime

facebook_cover_01I just finished reading Zero Echo Shadow Prime by Peter Samet. It’s one of the best sci fi books I’ve read in a long time.

The story starts off with a teenage girl, Charlie Nobunaga, finding out she has cancer. As part of an extreme attempt to save her life, her father makes a deal with the head of a corporation that creates advances in artificial intelligence, augmented reality (AR), and robotics. Charlie’s mind is scanned and copied, and as a result, four different versions of her are born. Zero, her original, dying, biological body. Prime, an advanced super-strong robot. Shadow, a computer program that serves as a virtual assistant and companion to a wealthy man. And Echo, a four-armed creation that is forced to duel against a variety of other genetically and cybernetically altered clones in a virtual simulation.

ZESP does an amazing job developing the different aspects of Charlie’s persona and showing how they change once they begin living their separate lives. The book also creates an interesting dystopic future where flying police drones can monitor and control people’s movements, “smart cell” technology allows for digital manipulation of the human body, and radical separationists protest against the loss of humanity caused by the advent of robotics and AI.

In classic sci fi tradition, ZESP develops a mystery that will keep you guessing until the end, and has an ending that, well, I won’t spoil it, but it’s a thrill and a shock that left me wanting more.

If you like sci fi, robots, virtual reality, flame throwers, spaceships, and cyber-terrorism, you should definitely check out this book.

Fire

Image Source: http://blackwoodterracefire.org/2015/02/02/rescue-938-responds-to-all-hands-working-fire-at-chestnut-lane-apartments/
Image Source: http://blackwoodterracefire.org/2015/02/02/rescue-938-responds-to-all-hands-working-fire-at-chestnut-lane-apartments/

That’s the view from the back yard of my apartment building this past Sunday as a fire tore through multiple homes, gutting at least ten apartments and doing serious damage to several others. I somehow managed to mostly sleep through the commotion, despite it taking place literally right outside my window (I took a blurry photograph from my own apartment later on, which can show you just how close I was to this fire).

By the time I woke up and checked on what was happening, things were pretty much under control. They were spraying more water over the wreckage as I watched from my window, but the flames were out.

Image Source: http://www.nj.com/gloucester-county/index.ssf/2015/02/firefighters_battle_3-alarm_deptford_blaze.html
Image Source: http://www.nj.com/gloucester-county/index.ssf/2015/02/firefighters_battle_3-alarm_deptford_blaze.html

This is the second time in the past eight years that there’s been a fire at my apartment complex. The previous one wasn’t anywhere near as bad (only one apartment was destroyed, and rumor was the tenant (who was being evicted) set the fire on purpose to get back at the landlord). But as you can see here, this fire got seriously out of control. For the past few days, whenever I leave the house or come home, the first thing I see is the gaping hole where several families used to live.

According to the news, four people were hospitalized, and almost a dozen families were displaced from their homes.

I could say that the fire has made me really think about fate, and mortality, and all of that. But that’s not really true. Sure, I’m slightly worried in a “if that had been my building…” sort of way, but I wouldn’t really say that I’m concerned. I feel bad for the people who have lost all their stuff and their homes, but at the very least no one was killed.

My biggest thought during all of this was how it started in one apartment and spread. While these pictures might not show it, I can tell when looking at the damage that it all started in the middle apartment. That’s the one with the most severe damage, and the only one where the fire spread enough to eat completely through the roof. The apartments to either side were then destroyed as the fire spread, and the apartments on the far sides were hit after that. All in a span of about an hour, from the time the first alarm sounded until the time the fire department had it under control.

Setting aside the “what if this had happened to my apartment” type of fears, I keep thinking how unfair it is to the neighbors who lost their homes as well because of something that started in one person’s apartment. The news reports don’t say what started the fire yet, but it could have been anything as simple as a stray cigarette, an unattended candle, or an oven that was left on. I know that I, personally, am always careful enough to avoid making such a mistake and burning my own apartment down. But if my neighbors (who, frankly, aren’t the most responsible people) do something stupid, I could end up paying the consequences. Just like almost a dozen families are losing everything because of something that started with just one.

It makes you think. Not just about danger and damage and all that, but about how one event can spread to affect others. A chain reaction, so to speak, affecting all of these people who have no other direction connection in their lives than where they all happen to live.

I wonder who I live next to, and what they might be doing that could someday affect my life.