Home Sweet Universe

Today’s guest post comes to us from Lauren Scharhag, co-author of Order of the Four Sons, Book 1. Much of the story takes place in Excelsior Springs, MO, not far from where I grew up, and near where some of my family still live and work. I received an advance review copy of the book (it’s out now as of this writing), and highly recommend it to all lovers of speculative fiction. It has touches of science fiction, fantasy, horror, crime and history, all wrapped up in one little package. It’s the first book of a series, and I’m looking forward to book 2 and further journeys in a universe not quite ours.

By way of introduction to Lauren and the O4S universe, I’ve asked her a few questions and posted her answers below. Following the interview is her guest post on creating believable settings for fantasy worlds and the universes they inhabit. Continue reading Home Sweet Universe

My Trouble With a Single Viewpoint Character

I’ve been working on my debut fantasy novel for too long. This will be my seventh and last draft. There will be beta reading and editing, but I’m never writing this thing from scratch again. Seven drafts are enough, even if a couple of them were not complete.

I’ve written 40,000 words on this latest draft. That’s half what the experts recommend for a first novel. But I’m only a quarter of the way through the story. So my novel will be twice the length the experts recommend, unless I cut a lot, and even then, what remains will exceed 80,000 words. It will be what it is, and I won’t cut so much the story suffers for it, regardless. I plan to self publish this sucker, so it’s not like I have to adhere to someone else’s ideas of what’s best.

I’d thought about breaking the book into two or three books, but some people don’t like reading a book, even one that’s part of a series, that can’t stand on its own. I’m not that way, as long as all the books in the series are available to me. If I can’t find one or if the author stops writing the series partway through, then that irks me. With that in mind, I think it best to make this novel a standalone story, even if it’s 120,000 to 160,000 words. I intend this to be the first book in a series, but I want it to be a complete story in itself.

The previous draft of the story was meant to be the one I’d edit for publication. But after it went to beta readers, I discovered they all agreed on one thing: Alonso, the male human protagonist, was not a good viewpoint character. I’d been shooting for an antihero, and that’s what I produced. He was just such an antihero that the readers couldn’t relate to him or, worse yet, root for him.

The problem I face with not using Alonso as the point-of-view character is that he’s so central to the story, whatever viewpoint character(s) I use need to know about Alonso and be able to observe his actions in so many different venues. To sufficiently cover all significant aspects of his tale, I determined that I needed three viewpoint characters: Ngozi, the shadow elf woman married to Alonso; Locket, a nearly-twenty-year-old dream walking human gal who’s been told to spy on Alonso in his dreams to help facilitate his death; and Gabriel, a teen-aged human girl with a secret or two and a grudge against Alonso from her previous life as a jackal. The tale will be told without either the protagonist or antagonist being used as a viewpoint character. Other authors have pulled off this type of story. The tales of Sherlock Holmes comes to mind, those narrated by Dr. Watson.

I’m staggering the chapters, writing one from one character’s viewpoint, the next from the second character’s viewpoint, and the next from the third character’s viewpoint. Repeat to the end. I like this approach in that it gives the reader information from different perspectives, and the reader comes to understand all that’s going on before any of the individual characters. I think this helps with the suspense, because it’s questionable whether each character will discover what they need to know in time to save themselves and those they love. Before, with only Alonso as viewpoint character, it was unclear exactly what the threat was against him — or if there was any threat — until late in the story. Without knowledge of the threat, it was difficult to root for Alonso, especially with his being such an antihero. The way the story is written now, the reader will have other characters to root for, and whether they root for Alonso or not won’t matter much.

It will now be clear to the reader from the outset that someone wants Alonso dead and for him to endure a lot of physical and emotional pain in the dying. Not all of the characters, especially Alonso and Ngozi, will know this. The reader will understand why Alonso is being treated so nicely by certain people he interacts with, whereas the beta readers of the previous draft had confessed to wondering at Alonso’s great luck in certain situations. One beta reader had even admitted to feeling a bit jealous of Alonso’s luck. That shouldn’t be the case now.

Initially I’d thought that using a single viewpoint character would be the only way I’d want to tell this story. The reader could delve deep into one character’s psyche and get to know the character well. That’s cool if the character has a psyche you want to visit for an entire novel. Alonso wasn’t like that. All of the three viewpoint characters I’m using now are likable in their own ways and more likable than Alonso. Gabriel was singled out by one of the beta readers as a favorite character. Another beta reader singled out Ngozi. Locket is one of my personal favorite characters from the story, and is suitable in the role of main character. So there you have it. Three viewpoint characters.

In writing the story from these different viewpoints, I’m finding the need to fill in some details that I hadn’t bothered with before, partly because Alonso had paid them no mind. I’m also finding that using these characters is invoking a better understanding in me of events that before had transpired in the background, but which now make sense to flesh out to further the stories of the viewpoint characters. There are times while writing this new material when I feel a flush of excitement as I realize that I am coming to understand these characters better and loving the cool new stuff I get to write because I’m using their viewpoints. There is a whole side to Gabriel that never came out in previous drafts, because Alonso wasn’t privy to it. This secret aspect of her had colored how she acted in those previous drafts, and I think it was because of this that a beta reader liked her the best, even though he didn’t know her complete backstory.

When will I be done writing this book? I think I’ll finish writing this last draft by the end of 2015. But the beta reading and editing will go into 2016. So I’m setting a goal of mid-2016 to publish. I will have to stay focused, which is difficult at times. I’m easily distracted by the lure of doing something new.

I love receiving words of encouragment from others. They really help motivate me. Got any such words for me?

Eposic Character Art Now Available on DriveThruRPG

If you’re an individual or self-publisher who could use a bit of royalty-free fantasy character art, check out the Eposic store on DriveThruRPG. I’ve put up a couple of art packs at a price anyone can afford: Pay What You Want. Even if you’re just curious, you can grab it for free if you like. Decorate your web site with it, put it on a roleplaying game character sheet, use it in your self-pubbed fiction or game books.

Sample image from the Dark Jasmine art pack:

Dark Jasmine sample art

There are two art packs available now. Grab them both at the Eposic store on DriveThruRPG.

Love After Death – Cover Art

Love After Death cover art So here’s my first stab at a cover for my debut fantasy novel, Love After Death. Click on the image to see a larger version. I rendered the 3D portion of the cover in DAZ3D Studio using the Genesis model. Postwork and titling were done in Serif PhotoPlus X5. The title font is Showcard Gothic. The font for the rest of the text on the cover is Century Gothic.

It’s not easy picking fonts for cover art. You want them to stand out even when the cover is displayed at a small size. I think the fonts I chose will work well for that. LoveAfterDeath-5 Here’s a smaller version of the cover art, at the size you’d expect to see used in an Amazon ad or brief listing for a published book. I have to lean close to the screen to read the text at the very top of the image, but I can definitely make it out. I can read the title okay, but then I already know what it says.

What do you think of this cover art? Does it pique your interest in the novel? What kind of story does this cover make you think the novel will be? Any suggestions for changes?

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Love After Death – A Synopsis

Here’s a synopsis of my debut fantasy novel, “Love After Death.” That’s still a working title, but I’m thinking more and more that I’ll keep it. See what you think.

The story takes place on a world called Pharas, where magic is the norm. Humans on Pharas are said to have come to the world from Earth a couple thousand years ago through a magical portal that is still operational. The protagonist is a thirty-two-year-old human man named Alonso. He’s married to a shadow elf woman, Ngozi, whom he’s known since he was sixteen. They are childless and since being married have discovered they can’t have children. They own a tower by the sea and now they are broke. Ngozi works but Alonso doesn’t because he’s too depressed. Alonso wants a daughter, and although he has secretly “adopted” the ghost of a twenty-year-old woman as his “daughter,” he wants a flesh-and-blood daughter.

Tax time is coming soon, and Ngozi isn’t making enough money to pay the taxes. So she takes the initiative to find Alonso a job that she is sure he can do: a job delivering hats in the nearest city, Hooblaport, which is where Ngozi works. The city was founded by a lizard-like humanoid kindred called the hoobla, hence the name Hooblaport. Alonso’s employer is a hoobla milliner, but it’s a human sorceress called Lady Ryley who got Alonso the job, and she has some requirements of her own. It turns out that more is expected of Alonso on the job than he or Ngozi realized. Alonso is expected to do a little more than deliver hats.
Continue reading Love After Death – A Synopsis

Sex Scenes in Fantasy Novels

I need your help, big time. My debut fantasy novel, now tentatively titled “Love After Death,” includes a number of explicit sex scenes. I’ve written them this way because that’s how they flowed onto the page. I have no qualms myself about publishing the novel with the sex scenes remaining as explicit as they are currently written. But I know there are some readers who are turned off by the inclusion of such scenes. Are there that many readers who feel that way, or just a few? I’m at the point where I’m ready to revise as needed and I’d love to have your input.

When it comes to sex scenes, I see four basic approaches:

  1. Not having any sex scenes at all, not even to mention that sex happens
  2. Mentioning that sex happens or alluding to the fact, but not describing any details beyond kissing, hugging or other activities that many people might do in public
  3. Describing or alluding to actions that most people would not do in public, but glossing over the specifics, and not mentioning people’s private parts in any way
  4. Placing no restrictions on descriptions of the actions involved during sex, typically being specific about what is done to or with people’s private parts

I say these are “basic” approaches, because between any two of them, there are many degrees of explicitness.
Continue reading Sex Scenes in Fantasy Novels

The Sentinel – A 3D Rendering

3D Rendering - The LookoutI took a little break from writing for a few days to revisit another favorite hobby of mine, which could have some bearing on my self-publishing efforts.

Back in the 80s I fiddled with Bryce 3D and Poser 3. More recently I tinkered with Poser 8. Yesterday I downloaded DAZ Studio 4.5 Pro and tried my hand at a quick 3D render with it. I’ve posted the resulting image here. I call it “The Sentinel.” Click the image to see a larger version.

You can do a lot of the same things with both DAZ Studio and Poser. I don’t know what improvements have been made to the more recent versions of Poser, but even they would have a lot of the same basic functionality. If you are comfortable with any 3D rendering program you can probably figure out the others. Continue reading The Sentinel – A 3D Rendering

To Usurp the Usurper

This story first appeared on Burrst.com. All other rights to the story were retained by the author.

Nelvon jerked his head around, afraid that the creatures might be hiding somewhere just off the forest path. His spell of Disreputable Provision had caused them to avoid contact with him for the past three miles, but the spell wouldn’t work on them again.

He reached in his pocket and pulled out a scrap of paper. On it were the words “Discount. Savor. Regress.” He had discounted the hell hounds, in one sense of the word. He had savored the taste of ambrosia, the nectar of the gods. Now he hoped to regress. He stole a glance at the backs of his hands; they were still as wrinkled as before he had entered the ruined temple, before he had found the goblet of god food. His body still suffered from the effects of aging.

He wheezed as he hurried along the path, moving his ancient legs as fast as he could. One, two, one, two, one, two. He kept a rhythm, just as he’d been taught when a member of the wizard corp. One, two. Glance left. Glance right. Were those red eyes peering out at him from the bushes to his right? Was that a dark shape skulking behind the trees to his left?

Nelvon stuffed the paper back into his pocket. His cloak flapped loudly as his legs pumped, continually propelling him forward. Yet his ears were alert, his eyes keen. The smell of wet leaves after an afternoon rain filled his nostrils. What did wet hell hounds smell like?

A low-pitched, deep-throat growl caused his legs to break rhythm and spin him around. There was not one hell hound, but five, the largest of them in front, and only five yards away. They bounded towards him on silent feet that didn’t quite touch the ground. Their eyes burned red, like living coals in a blazing bonfire. The leader came within leaping range, and leaped.

With no time to think, Nelvon spat out the first spell that came to his mind, the spell of Sound and Thud. It was foremost in his mind because of the silence with which these creatures ran. It wasn’t natural.

And he’d used up most of his other spells already.

The leader smacked into him, hard, knocking Nelvon onto his back. His head cracking on the gravel of the forest path exploded like thunder. The lead hell hound hesitated at the sound, its front paws on Nelvon’s chest, its drooling snout hanging over Nelvon’s face, it’s foul breath seeping into his lungs. In that moment of hesitation, Nelvon reached up and took the hell hound by the throat. He twisted, and the hell hound’s neck snapped, while it’s head lolled limply to one side, and then it slumped onto his prone body, lifeless, but heavy in death.

Laughing, he effortlessly rolled the hell hound’s body off him and sprang to his feet. Looking at his hand, he saw the wrinkles had all gone. Pulling up his sleeve, he saw rippling muscles. He lifted his head and laughed, shaking a fist at the sky. “I have done it!” he exclaimed, and the power of his voice surprised him.

The other four hell hounds stood their ground, staring at him, their tails between their legs. Then they moved slowly backwards, retreating to the protection of the treeline behind them.

“I don’t think so,” said Nelvon. “I have defeated your leader. I am now your leader. You belong to me.” He knew the laws of magic and the supernatural. “Follow me, and protect me as best you can.”

They understood him. He was their leader. Their tails still between their legs, they formed a V formation behind him and followed him along the forest path. He did not look furtively about him. He knew that any other hell hounds out there would think twice before attacking him now.

“I am coming for you, Aggreth,” Nelvon murmured. “You usurped me, and now you will pay.”

No one would stop Nelvon from returning to his position as chief wizard on the Wizards Council now. As a demigod, he could rule the council for eternity.

How Quick is Your Magic?

Cover Art for The Crimson League I just finished reading the fantasy novel, The Crimson League, by Victoria Grefer. The book was about sorcery and those who deal in it, and presented magic in a way unlike most other fantasy tales I’ve read or fantasy role playing games I’ve played.

In The Crimson League, magic is powered by Lin, for which not a lot is explained, but that’s beside the point. There’s a power source, and it has a name, something other than manna or The Force or kremm. To tap into this power source, one must have inherited the talent to do so, a status to which not everyone in the world qualifies. If you have the talent, then you must focus your mind and speak the correct word or short phrase. If you don’t focus correctly, the casting may produce an effect not quite what you want. With practice, you can learn how to focus correctly without as much effort. If you don’t speak the magic words correctly, the spell doesn’t take effect. If a magical word is supposed to end with an e and you say it with an a, it isn’t going to work, even though the untrained ear might not be able to tell the difference.

In Herezoth, the land in which unfurl the events of The Crimson League, learning a spell can be done by simply hearing another sorcerer cast it. Fortunately, you don’t have to shout it, or even speak it in a normal voice; if you don’t want your enemies learning your spells, you learn to whisper them when you cast them. But in the heat of battle, it might not be that easy to remember to whisper. And if someone has the ability to read your thoughts, they can learn your spells that way. It gives a whole new twist to using and learning magic.

Take all of the above and put it together with the fact that a sorcerer can fire off spells as fast as they can be spoken, and you can see that sorcerers in Herezoth are damn powerful. It’s no wonder the general population is highly prejudiced against all sorcerers. An experienced sorcerer could take out a band of sword-wielding warriors in a matter of seconds, without a single warrior having the time to swing a sword.

I think every other system of magic I’ve read about, whether in fiction or in role playing game rules, is more constrained than Grefer’s. In one popular system, the sorcerer must memorize the spells that can be cast that day, hanging them as it were on a spell rack from which the sorcerer may choose until the spells on the rack have been expended or the next day arrives. Most of these spells can be cast fairly quickly, but there are a limited number of each spell that may be cast per day, according to how the sorcerer chose them when the day began. Still, it is unlikely a sorcerer can cast multiple spells before any warriors in the area would have time to launch a physical attack on the sorcerer.

In the magic system of the role playing game Tunnels and Trolls, sorcerers don’t have to memorize spells beforehand, but is limited by the amount of kremm the sorcerer can manipulate at any given time, with more powerful spells requiring more amounts of kremm. After a spell is cast, the sorcerer must wait two full minutes before casting another one, presumably because the casting has temporarily disconnected the sorcerer from an immediately available source of kremm.

Yet other magic systems require lengthy rituals to invoke magic. These rituals might take hours or even days to complete, may require multiple participants, and may require items or lives to be consumed or sacrificed. They are more easily interrupted if you can find and reach the location of the ritual, but the effects of successfully cast ritualistic magic are typically extensive, causing or solving problems for vast numbers of people in one casting.

In fantasy fiction, it is typical for magic systems to be constrained for dramatic effect, especially if the protagonist is one who works magic. If sorcerers are magnitudes more powerful than warriors, a tale with a sorcerer protagonist fighting warriors becomes too predictable and boring, since it is expected that the sorcerer will handily defeat the warriors without problem.

Stories abound with a warrior protagonist and an extremely powerful sorcerer antagonist. These stories work because the warrior will be a sympathetic underdog character, but the problem here is to make it believable when the lesser warrior character defeats the all-powerful sorcerer. It’s just easier to tell this sort of tale if magic is constrained in some way, so the warrior character can figure out how to take advantage of the constraints to defeat the sorcerer.

In a tale with a sorcerer protagonist, such as The Crimson League, where users of magic are so much more powerful than warriors, the antagonist pretty much has to be an even more powerful sorcerer. This can make for an entertaining read, as Victoria Grefer proves with her tale. But the direct combat encounters between the protagonist and the antagonist can’t be too numerous—if the antagonist is that much more powerful than the protagonist, then the antagonist should handily defeat the protagonist after only an encounter or two.

My point in all this is that it depends on the kind of story you want to tell as to how constrained you should make your magic system, whether in fiction or a role playing game. In The Crimson League, combat encounters involving sorcery are deadly. To maintain the suspension of disbelief, characters of which the readers/players may have grown quite fond must become casualties. If the author/GM must kill off numerous characters, there will need to be a lot of characters around to start with, or more will have to be introduced as the story progresses. It’s not always easy for the author to manage a large stable of characters or for the reader to keep them all apart. If characters are continually introduced into the story just to be killed off, it becomes difficult for the reader to identify with or care about any of these characters.

If your tale concerns a sorcerer protagonist with few or no companions, you need some clear constraints on your magic system, so it will be believable when your protagonist is able to avoid being immediately incinerated by the more powerful antagonist, and so your protagonist isn’t expected to be able to automatically pulverize warrior foes.

But if you can pull off a tale of high-powered, low-constrained magic involving a sorcerer protagonist, a more powerful sorcerer antagonist, and lots of supporting characters ready to become casualties, and you can do it without making all the characters two-dimensional cutouts, then I applaud you, as I applaud Victoria Grefer with The Crimson League. If you like fantasy fiction and you’ve not read her book, I highly recommend you do.

My Goodreads Review
The Crimson League by Victoria Grefer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Crimson League I’m a sucker for fantasy novels with sorcerers and sorceresses as POV characters. In The Crimson League, the POV character is the sorceress Kora, but because of magic we are made privy to what is happening with other characters, including some that are miles away from Kora, without losing Kora as the POV character. This is genius on the part of the author.

When I read how magic works in the world of this novel, I wondered if the author would be able to pull it off in a manner that would allow for the continued suspension of disbelief. Those who practice magic can cast spells as quickly as they can speak the words, if they are able to focus properly. Spouting off three spells in immediate succession, within a matter of seconds, is possible in this world. That makes for quite a different story from one in which spells require rituals or material components or at least a minute or two of focusing, gesturing, and chanting. It’s not easy to interrupt the casting of a spell. About all you can do to defend yourself is put up a shield in the split second before the spell effect strikes you. So you can imagine that conflicts involving magic are deadly, and the author does not hold back in this regard. Characters that I cared about were slain, some within view of the POV character and others not, and so the reader is made privy to the details of some of these deaths and not others.

In a review of The Crimson League that I read elsewhere, a reviewer didn’t like the character of Menikas. I did. Menikas always tried to do what was right, and not just for himself. He saved Kora’s life, but she didn’t appreciate it and refused to make peace with him. I’m confident that if I had been in the same situation, I’d have done the same thing Menikas did. Because of the way magic worked in the world, with it being so easy to fire off a spell with but a word, and in a situation where Kora would have been outmatched by enemies who had magic, she would more than likely have been killed if she had tried to do what she wanted, which Menikas stopped her from doing. She blamed him for what happened after that to some of her friends, but realistically if she had intervened when she wanted she would have been unable to prevent the outcome anyway.

The situation with Menikas, a “good” character who acted in a manner he thought honorable and which another “good” character thought was deplorable, is just one example of the complex natures of the characters in this novel. Even the antagonist in this novel has some redeemable qualities, including the ability to love someone other than himself.

I never have time to read a book of this length through from beginning to end without putting it down multiple times, so I appreciated the breaks where I could put the book down. But I must also add that I could not put the book down once I had read 70% of it. I had to finish it then, and stayed up way too late, until the wee hours of the next morning, so I could finish without putting it down. I wanted to put it down and get some sleep, but I always found myself starting the next chapter just to see how things were going, and then I had to finish the chapter.

This is not epic, save-the-world fantasy fiction, and it’s not urban fantasy, but it has elements of both. There’s a touch of romance, some underground crawls and above-ground treks and a lot of hiding out in cities, an ample supply of adventure and misadventure, sword and sorcery conflicts, trolls, and complex characters. It’s my kind of fantasy tale.

So, yes, I loved the book. I’ll be reading the other books in the trilogy. I was able to obtain this book as a free download, but I’ll pay for the next two, because I want to support this author. I’ll publish some of my own fantasy novels some day, and hope they are on par with The Crimson League.

Fire and Magic

Some of my visitors have seen this essay before. It is posted on writing.com, but I’ve added to it since the last time I mentioned it to my fellow Tunnels and Trolls fans, and some people who have started visiting The Troll Mystic more recently may not have seen the original essay. I post the updated essay here in full. Though it is written from the perspective of a fiction author, designers of role playing games and adventures might also find it of interest. Enjoy.

If you are writing a fantasy short story or novel that includes Magic, have you thought much about its nature, or is it just something that is there to be used whenever you need it? If you have a clear picture in your mind of how Magic works in your fantasy setting, it will help give your writing that consistent feel that readers expect. With this essay, I put forth one possible view of Magic, not necessarily for you to emulate, but with the hope that it will spark some creative flame within you to devise your own concepts of Magic.

I view Magic as akin to Fire. It isn’t there until the conditions are right for it. The wizard knows how to bring about those conditions. The right conditions might also happen accidentally, whether it be nature starting a random Fire or creating a random outburst of Magic. The careless handling of Fire can be dangerous, just as can be the careless handling of Magic. Continue reading Fire and Magic