World-Building 101 for Sci-fi, Fantasy, and more.

earth wallpaper
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

One approach to building immersive worlds:

I do a lot of world-building for my writing. Truth be told, I do a lot of world-building because it’s fun for me. It’s been a while since I did an in-depth world-building post, so here goes. This post won’t be a template or outline for building a world, just my thoughts on various parts of the process and why I enjoy it.

First, some background: In the mid-eighties, I was a kid without other kids to play with in my neighborhood. There was no internet yet, so I didn’t have any social networks to scroll through either. Oh, the humanity! I spent a lot of time looking over maps. From Rand-McNally’s American road atlas to National Geographic maps to just about any paper map I could find, I even decorated my walls with maps for a while.

Besides maps, I also spent several years devouring books and modules from the Marvel Super Heroes role-playing game. One of the standout books in my mind was called the Book of Ultimate Powers. Together these books gave my fertile imagination a chance to explore ideas I’d seen in movies, TV, and comic books. Some of them were hits, others definite misses, but it gave me a lifelong fascination with mixing and matching ideas to make something new.

I built worlds with animal-human hybrids, magical realms that barely followed the laws of physics (even with my poor understanding of physics). I also dabbled in science fiction settings that were strange and new to me. Eventually, I gave up on the Marvel approach and started making worlds and characters without their template, and that is where things took off.

Getting Serious

 My first foray into world-building without marvel was the science fiction universe that eventually became the basis for my Renegade Galaxy short stories. I flailed around in the process for years off and on while I was on active duty. I also spent some time more methodically creating a fantasy world more along the lines of Tolkien and The Silmarillion. Bouncing back and forth between those worlds for a decade made them both rich and diverse.

The process I developed over that time allows me to build a world in days that might have taken a decade back then. I’ll just get to the good stuff now that I’ve shared how I developed this process. My method took twenty years to develop, so there were lots of false starts, failed experiments, and a few shining triumphs along the way. If you can avoid the problems and only pick up the good parts, I may save you some headaches I endured.

I have to start somewhere.

First things first, I decide the kind of concept the story requires. What kind of story am I telling? Is this a novel-length story, something shorter, or a format without those kinds of rules like a D&D campaign? Each may require tweaking the process or limiting the scope of world-building.

Next, I determine the setting. Is this story science fiction, fantasy, horror, paranormal, or something else?. Is the story set in some version of the real world, or does it require a mixture of elements? There are as many settings available as there are minds to imagine them. My decisions shape the rest of my process. Hopefully, your process and mine, no matter how similar, produce wildly different but equally valid results. As long as your story maintains internal consistency, I think your readers will be willing to give you a pass on minor details.

Once I know the kind of story I want to tell and have a vague idea of the setting, it’s time to make this world more concrete (whether they have developed concrete or not). To do that, I branch out into one of two directions. If geography (on a single planet) or interstellar distances will play a key role (among stories with more than one world), I draw a rough map of what I want to include. This map allows me to set up different regions, biomes, geological processes, ocean currents, weather systems, and regional climates that may have affected civilizations or societal developments.

Alternatively, change up the sequence.

The other route is to outline the nations and regions without a map. I draw a map of some kind in virtually every world I build, with the rare exception of real world based stories where I can use Google Earth or actual paper maps. (You see why I mentioned maps earlier. The circle is now complete.) This outline focuses on large-scale conflicts between groups and identifies places I may want to map out in more detail later.

At this point, whichever route I took, I now complete the other (map or macro-lens outline). From here, I drill down to cities, landmarks, historical backstory and flesh out the basic ideas I started in the last step. I want to know the types of governments involved, who makes decisions in this world, and what motivates their interest. If they are pertinent to the story, religions, economic factors, trade routes (and information flow) between groups, military organizations (like Starfleet or the Order of Radiant Knights), population numbers, technology levels, infrastructure, and other social institutions come into play here. Unique magic systems or speculative technologies also start to take shape at this stage.

Have you noticed anyone missing?

All of this comes before I flesh out a single character for the story. But, I’ve had ideas for characters first and built worlds around them, too. If all the pieces come together in the end, the world-building sequence is mainly irrelevant to me. Although going another route may cause me to rewrite as I go, which is never a bad thing, in my eyes at least.

I’ll point out here that none of this is set in stone. The decisions I make about one element of the world may influence others in unforeseen ways. That is all good stuff. Make your world unique but consistent. (Or don’t – it’s your world, your rules!)

By now, I have a pretty good handle on the kind of world where the story will take place. I generally use some of this information to build the characters who will populate the story, but not always the POV character(s) yet. Is my setting one of a guild economy? Maybe my character is working for (or against) a guild. Perhaps they are part of a religion I developed, either on the run from overzealous clerics or trying to return artifacts central to their theology. A prince from a neighboring country may have run off with a woman (or man) to start some version of the Trojan War.

It all comes down to how you use what you’ve got.

Whatever the story, I want to weave all the world-building work into the story to make the characters come to life. Sharing that backstory without an info-dump of how I developed the character is the tricky part for me. I spent so much time building this incredible world, and I don’t want to let it sit idly while my characters stare intently at each other across the room. Ideally, they have poignant dialogue amid the ruins of a fallen city because their goal was last seen in that city, informed by all that world-building that finally makes sense to the reader as the scenes unfold.

Being from a specific place should inform the reader, not bludgeon them with how incredible that region may be. In other words, as much effort as I put into world-building, it should complement the characters that inhabit my pages. Some are cooler than others, of course, just like the real world.

Ultimately, readers want characters they can sympathize with, who do extraordinary (or ordinary) things that they will likely never do in real life. The emotional connection to those characters keeps your readers turning pages and coming back for more stories. If the setting has depth, adds to the story, and comes alive in your pages, they may fall in love with your world as much as any character.

November is NaNoWriMo.

person writing on the notebook

What a year, huh?

With NaNoWriMo just around the corner, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on writing a novel. Last October, I finished writing the rough draft for my first novel, Fantastic America, The Magic Unleashed. Last November, I started the second book in that series, Midwestern Magicians, to keep the momentum going. I got over 50,000 words written in that month, or just over halfway through my outline. Book two has been sitting unfinished ever since as I concentrated on short stories, querying (UGH!), and working on my website, The Sorcerer’s Realm.

This November, I’ll be dusting Magicians off and finishing what I started. To accomplish this task, I’ll be using the same tried and true methods I’ve used in the past. Outlining (or at least updating my existing outline), lots of late-night writing marathons (which I love), and gauging my progress each night as I go. Again, my target is around 50,000 words, which is the target for many NaNoWriMo projects. Some nights I may write 3,000 words, some nights 1,000, or maybe I go on a bender and hit 5,000 words. Some days I may only hit 500 words, but as long as I even out, in the end, my goal is easily in reach.

Fortunately, I have the luxury of time to work each night. Some writers struggle to get an hour or less to write each night. It is still possible to write a novel at that rate, it may take longer, but it is doable. I talked to lots of writers who ‘steal’ fifteen minutes here or there to write between their job, family, and other commitments. For me, writing comes down to how much I want the next story to make it to the page. If I believe in the idea, I have to see it through. Not every story works the way I intend it to, but I learn from failure more often than success.

One Chapter at a Time.

My approach to writing a novel is relatively simple (to me). I research the topics I know I’ll need to tackle to write, locations, time periods, cultural references, technologies, or anything that might come up in a scene or backstory. Then I outline the chapters as I see them in my head. Once there is a beginning, middle, and end, I write them out as I imagined them. Sometimes the order changes, ideas develop as I write, or change to fit the story better, which means editing later. But in the first pass, everything goes into the sandbox. I fill it up as I go and worry about revision later. I have to get material on the page to shape it afterward.

Sometimes, I read other authors complaining about editing getting in the way of finishing their novels. There can be lots of reasons they don’t finish, but one I don’t need in my way is editing before the rough draft is done. I’ve edited Fantastic America at least six times now and likely will again before it gets published. Editing and writing are different parts of the same process.

Don’t Get Lost in Research.

It is easy to lose track of what I should be writing while researching. Rabbit holes are very tempting, as I love discovering new information (and sometimes revisiting familiar information). The goal of research is to add authenticity to your writing, or at least to avoid insincerity. Writing what you know is a maxim for a reason.

You don’t have to become an expert in every nuance of a topic. Some elements of a story don’t require more than a cursory familiarity with a subject. It’s up to each of us to decide how much research ends up in a story. Ultimately, what the reader needs to know is all that is important. I’ve spent over an hour on research that only made an informed sentence or two in a story more than once.

Write the story. Research can be fun, bit stay focused on your goal. You can always embellish later if your research paid off with a new way to show a scene, add backstory for a character or share important information about a location. None of that is as important as putting the scenes from your head down on the pages.

Stay On Target

Like the rebels skimming the trench on the Death Star, I have a target when I write. Last November, it was 50,000 words in a month. It is much the same this year, though I will review what I already have written to inform my efforts this year. Having a goal, whether it’s the word count, a certain number of scenes, or some other target, makes writing towards that goal easier (for me, at least). So decide what goal you want to reach and cut it into smaller, achievable steps. Breaking down a larger goal makes reaching it appear less intimidating (if it’s intimidating at all).

After all the prep work, there is only one last ingredient necessary for success. Consistently show up to write. Whether you have a quiet time devoted to writing, sit down with a laptop at a coffee shop, or take a notebook to your favorite cozy spot outside, you have to put in the work. I enjoy writing. Creating a novel would sound like torture if I didn’t like world-building, character development, dialogue, and other storytelling ingredients.

The challenge of weaving all those parts into a coherent narrative is what keeps me coming back to the keyboard. Showing a reader the world I’ve created, introducing the characters who populate it, and displaying their struggles brings me joy even when hardly anyone reads my words. Of course, I want to share those worlds and characters with other people, but the joy of creation is as important to me as views, sales, or accolades.

NaNoWriMo is a chance to dig into the worlds, characters, and conflicts I love. Authors all over will be huddling together or seeking solitude to create new novels this November. I’ll be one of them, and I hope someday, the fruit of my labors are on a shelf in a bookstore for readers to enjoy. I can’t ask for much more than that, but I wouldn’t mind a TV series or movie adaptation before shuffling off this mortal coil. Dream big!

My first writing update since stepping back from daily posts.

I returned to Torthal.

Back to fundamentals for me…

I’ve been working my way through rewrites of stories I started this summer. I picked up Gari’s story and rewrote almost the entire second installment. This week I’ll share his journey with my writer’s group and barring any more substantial rewrites, I’ll have more to share with you about how he’s doing in Torthal. I have high hopes for these characters and the setting. A couple of things I’m considering changing include some of the characters names, and the title for the story.

My next big project is related to Fantastic America, and Midwestern Magicians. As nanowrimo approaches, I plan to finish the work I started last year with at least a rough draft of book two in the series. I’ll keep on writing until I find my footing for the ideas I have outlined already. I love the version of our world in the Magic Unleashed series, and can’t wait to share the other worlds it leads to.

My other summer project was the Centriole. I wrote it for a monthly writing challenge, but it didn’t quite work for that. The story was imaginative and interesting, but it didn’t have a resolution in the five thousand word limit for the contest. Now that the challenge is over, I can overhaul the story and make it more satisfying to read. At least, that’s my plan for it right now.

If at first you don’t succeed…

Failure is often a great teacher though, and not winning or even placing in the challenge highlighted an area I need to work on. I write a lot of short stories, but they aren’t all that short. Strunk & White taught me in high school that, “Vigorous writing is concise.” One of my lessons learned this summer is that I need to work on the concise part.

A story should have a beginning, middle, and end. If I’m at four thousand words of a five thousand word story, I need to have a plan to wrap it up and make that ending worthwhile for my audience. For all the imagination the centriole contained, it did not end well. Ailish ended her story as if it were the intro to a longer piece (which it may still become) but that didn’t do any good for the contest or the readers who wanted an actual conclusion, myself included.

Stay tuned for more updates!

The struggle bus has been parked at my house for over a year.

man sitting on a hood of a school bus
The struggle is real!

In March 2020, the struggle bus quietly parked in front of my house. I didn’t even recognize it at first, but that changed before the ides were out. Caesar might envy me, but he might just roll over and die rather than face the slow death grip covid has inflicted on the world. I’ve been looking for a brighter day throughout the pandemic, and that is where I’ve struggled most.

I dislike change.

The first change I noticed was when all my doctors cancelled my appointments. Routine check ups, non-essential visits, and even some health issues I really wanted to address were pushed back indefinitely (I’m still a month away from a final appointment I managed to rescheduled from March 2020). How I wish that was the only impact.

Stores and restaurants started to close or cut their hours. I’m a night owl by nature, and loved the weirdos like me who shopped overnight to avoid normal people. We were an early casualty of the lockdowns. Of course flattening the curve was just the beginning.

Masks became important, I bought Pedialyte, extra toilet paper (not every roll I could find but enough to last a while), more bottled water than usual, and downloaded the FEMA guide to surviving a pandemic. I didn’t use anything but the water, and I consider myself lucky at that.

When will it end?

The year wore on. Summer, my favorite time of year, went by with hardly any fanfare at all. No gatherings, even for 4th of July. But few people near me got sick, so that’s a blessing all by itself. Still, the isolation wore at us all. Even though I already avoided people, I missed gatherings. Ironic isn’t it?

I took some wild chances for random nights out with friends and managed to avoid getting sick. A few of my rowdier friends went out more, and weren’t so lucky. None of them died, although covid did take people I knew. Shauna Wolf, one of the best writing mentors I ever had the privilege to work with lost her struggle with the disease. It was real, but thankfully distant from my day to day life.

In 2021 a flurry of vaccines became available. They were designed quickly with new mRna technologies I’d read about, but who wants to be first in line for untried vaccines? I’ve read adverse reaction reports since the 90’s, I didn’t want any of that. But I kept reading, and kept watching the news. There were potential dangers to taking the shots, but definite dangers by not getting vaccinated.

Choices shape our chances.

I’m one of those imuno-compromised people who sought out the vaccine fairly early. Not in the first round of doses, but by May of 2021 I had both shots. I didn’t have any side effects, or even a mild adverse reaction. My body may have remembered all the shots I got in boot camp, who knows.

The vaccine and dropping numbers of hospital patients made Summer better in 2021, but it still wasn’t the same. Backyard gatherings were still hit or miss, although our 4th of July party was more like those we’ve had in the past. Children still swam in our pool, and a few people came out to sit by our fire pit. I went out a few times, but even the rowdy crowd at a local bar was less rambunctious than before the pandemic.

You take the good and the bad, add them up, and there you have…

I finally convinced my wife to get the vaccine, after six months of not becoming a zombie. She tested positive for the disease in 2020, but had no symptoms while she quarantined in our house. She just got her second shot today, which is what prompted this rambling post about the struggles I’ve had. My struggles weren’t physical, aside from a kidney stone that I had to have powdered. The pain of the stone, the recovery from the procedure, and the removal of the stent are all near the top of my Never Again list.

Most of what I’ve struggled with has been internal. Stuck in the house with grandkids, my wife, and my thoughts, hasn’t left me much room to vent. Random nights out when I didn’t expect to find big crowds helped, but that only does so much. My thoughts were still melancholy the next day. I have a few go to coping methods, I write, play games on my PC to escape, read and watch TV or movies as a last resort. Only writing and reading feel truly cathartic for me.

“Difficult to see. Always in motion the future is.”

The pandemic is still raging, new variants are cropping up, and debate is ongoing about booster shots. But I feel lucky. I haven’t gotten sick, not even the flu. Knock on wood. Even just typing that makes me feel better. So I guess as long as we have to worry about covid, there will be fewer gatherings, fewer hours to shop or eat out, and one more worry for those of us who worry about everything.

In the mean time, I’ve written more short stories than I have since 2019. I finished and revised (more times than I can count) Fantastic America, wrote the first half of Midwestern Magicians, and started querying agents. I don’t think any of us are happy there is a pandemic going on, but at least I have hope society won’t collapse from it anytime soon. There are many more human culprits to worry about collapsing the modern world anyway…

365th consecutive blog posts!

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This is my 365th consecutive post since August 28th of 2020.

I set out to prove to myself that I could accomplish a few things. One, to come up with new and interesting posts every day for a year. Check. Two, I wanted to share my writing and my writing process. Double check. My original intent was to share my writing journey as I wrote my debut novel, Fantastic America. I checked that box too, but it went by so quickly, the journey ended before the experiment was half over. And finally, as the experiment grew in scope, I wanted to connect with readers and other writers. All boxes checked.

Now that my experiment is over, and successful, I have to decide where to go from here. My first instinct is to only write once a week from now on, but honestly, writing a post a day has become part of my writing habit. Even on days I didn’t write anything else, it felt good to post something here to validate my other efforts. I haven’t decided one way or another yet.

I learned some valuable lessons.

I have learned a few other things during my experiment. I’m not great at getting people to engage with my content. Something I’ve been working on all year. I’ll keep working on that, whether I post every day from here on out or only when I feel like it. I also learned that I am a poor judge of what will stir people’s interest, or maybe I’m still learning how to judge that. I have plenty of work to do either way.

I also learned a bit about how I write. Early on I identified a couple of problems during editing of my posts that I still struggle with sometimes. It turns out I write long sentences. I’m not sure if that is good or bad, but as I recall, William Faulkner wrote long sentences, too. Not that I’m a renowned author of his stature, but at least I’m in good company. Other problems I found Grammarly to be a great help with, so much so that I ignore them until the program points them out.

All the posts I shared here are just the start, I learned just how many stories I have to tell (or show). Just in the past two months, I’ve created Torthal and Fractal, two very different worlds for two very different stories. Once my imagination is free, it runs loose and I build world after world full of stories to share.

Not quite, “So long, and thanks for all the fish…”

Finally, I’d like to thank those of you who’ve found me and stuck with me over the past year. I can count (usually on one hand) on a few of you to like whatever I’ve posted. Even when it was just a post to say I was sick or in the hospital, it still made me smile to see regular followers checking in on me. That may or may not have been your intent, but I told myself that was what you were doing.

Here’s to the next year of The Sorcerers’ Realm. Huzzah!

Proof is in the writing…

I’ve written a lot in the past year about writing, but unless you’ve downloaded the free short story I have hanging out on the side bar of my website, you have no idea if I know what I’m talking about. This post will, I hope, fix that. I am nothing if not a fixer of problems (in my mind at least). So here is a sample of a scene I’ve written, I hope you enjoy it:

Excerpt from, “Midnight at the Sultan’s Palace”

  “The Sultan’s Palace is a bit of a letdown,” Chaz said. He adjusted his glasses and gestured out the van window to emphasize his disappointment to his crew. “I expected a grand mansion with minarets or something. That’s just a fancy three-story house like dozens of others we’ve seen around the French Quarter. We’ll really have to over-sell it to the audience.”

  The pale pink building towered above his oversized van parked across narrow, one-way Dauphine Street. The four men inside craned their necks for a better view of the house. Its’ elegant wrought-iron balconies and railings surrounded the upper floors like the decks of an old riverboat tied to a pier whose passengers were too well off to notice the men in the van below.

  “Three and a half stories,” Barry, his tech guy said. “I found the plans for the place before we came out to film. The house has an elevated basement under the main floor. You can see the little cross-barred windows from here.”

  Chaz couldn’t care less about how many floors there were inside. This investigation was supposed to recharge his audience for the third season of his Spirit Searchers cable TV show. He needed a ratings boost for the network to renew them for season four.

  The Sultan’s Palace had sounded like the perfect December filming location. It was warmer in New Orleans than most places they investigated this time of year. The location had lots of reported activity, from door slamming to full body apparitions. Best of all, unlike Eastern State or Trans-Allegheny, there was no competition from other shows trying to film on the longest night of the year.

Back to writing about writing…


Chaz and his crew are in for more excitement than they planned. Their investigation happens to be on the night that magic returns to the Earth. The spirits of the house come barreling into the present, scaring the cable TV crew out of their minds in the process. I’ll leave the rest up to your imagination until I add this short story to the downloadable content on the site.

The point in sharing this short bit of the opening scene is to show how many of the elements I’ve talked about come together in writing. This snippet grounds you in time and place, New Orleans after the advent of cable TV paranormal programming. It’s 2012 in this case. Description, dialogue, and internal monologue all flesh out the scene as the crew arrives to start their investigation.

Had I shared more of the scene, I could go on about differentiating characters, showing vs. telling, building suspense, depicting action sequences, and showing character growth. All of that is hard to cram into a short story. But once I could do that, scaling it up into chapters was simple. Once I decided I could master the short story, writing a novel length story was well within my grasp.

A change of pace – Gifts in the Dark

serene young woman in maxi dress swimming in lake

Son of Adam, come follow me

And I’ll show you sights

Of hidden immortal mystery

And holy hoary frights.

Come with me child of light

Into the mists untroubled

Where wait treasures of the night

In darkness strangely doubled

Are you afraid little one?

To accept the spell I’ve cast

Across the bridge we’ll run

To a land of futures past

The trip is brief my child

And there’s so much you can do

Just step into the wild

Where the night belongs to you

Once your mother followed me

But she took only half the gift

That’s really how you came to be

And how she clove a rift

Now to you I offer all

That your parents simply wouldn’t see

I know you’ll take up my call

And walk the road to eternity.

I just finished the rough draft for my newest short story, The Centriole.

building steps architecture interior

As much as I prattle on about getting my butt in the chair to write, I don’t always push my self to finish what I start. So every chapter or short story I finish feels like a bigger win to me than it might to others. Tonight was one of those nights, I’ve had less than four hours of sleep in the past forty-eight hours. Somehow, I got the story done, and scrubbed through Grammarly to boot.

I’ll let the story sit a day at least before I try to polish it, then share it with my critique group, before submitting it for the monthly challenge. I have most of a week till the deadline, which should be just about long enough. That sounds hectic to me, I’m used to a much more leisurely pace when I write.

Like Hannibal said, “I love it when a plan comes together.” No matter how often I write, or how many new worlds and characters I create, the joy of finishing a project is exquisite. It never gets old, even if it’s just a milestone like finishing a scene I struggled with, or polishing up a chapter in a novel. Each bit of forward progress is its own reward.

I’m worn out but smiling. Sleepy, but proud of myself. Sometimes, I need that little rush of endorphins that tells me I’m making progress. I few likes from readers does the same thing, but feedback from my critique group helps fill that void, too. Writing in a vacuum leaves my soul stagnant, I like to hear back about what I write. Whether it’s glowing praise or a harsh reality check. As long as my work improves, I’m happy to hear either one.

One way I sleep better, write, and think more clearly.

man walking along road in forest

I recently read a news article that the US military teaches pilots a step-by-step relaxation process to fall asleep quickly. From personal experience, I can see how it might work. When I was a teenager, my dad had a small home library, one of his books was about self-hypnotism. I tried it but wasn’t very good at clearing my mind or relaxing. But I kept the process in mind and tried it again once in a while. The article described the same process.

Fast forward 25 years, long after school, and my military career was over. I was diagnosed with a chronic illness and depressed about being sick with no chance of recovery. Dozens of therapies and medicines later, I tried binaural beats. With binaural beats a listener hears two different tones so that one tone is in one ear and the other slightly different tone is in the other ear at the same time.

The sounds change; they can be virtually any noise at all, but the difference between the two supposedly activates or calms different parts of the listener’s brain. Binaural beats didn’t work perfectly for me. But remembering my self-hypnosis experience, I gave it more than a few tries.

One audio file I tried just after New Year’s Day a few years ago gave me amazing results. The particular audio file I listened to just wanted me to find a relaxing place in my memory. I tried that, but I have a terrible habit of letting my mind wander. In this case, I meandered back to the day I got lost in the woods. You can read about that in a previous blog post HERE.

The woods still call to me after all these years.

I was able to relax while remembering how I got ready to ‘hike’ that day. Instead of a tranquil setting, I imagined the path I walked, and like stepping into a lucid dream, I was back on that path as if I was there in person. The experience overwhelmed me enough that I didn’t have time to marvel at how real it seemed until it was all over. But I did write a FB post right after it, describing how remarkable the experience had been.

In my mind’s eye, I returned to the path I got lost on. I went past the oak tree and horse, down into the creek bed where the trail disappeared. As if for the first time, I experienced a sliver of panic from being lost in the dark. Just as exquisite, I found an echo of the joy from finding my way back home. The experience left me refreshed, but also more at peace than I had been in years. I’d finally stumbled onto something that worked for me.

Is it meditation, or intense memories?

I don’t meditate, if you can even call what I do meditation. All I do is step through the relaxation process from my dad’s self-hypnotism book. I forgo the binaural beats but still imagine getting ready for my hike. The clothes I wore, the walking stick I carried, and the bag of utterly useless stuff I brought along are all integral to my process. The memories are crisp and detailed, right down to the hand-sharpened point I put on my walking stick.

From my front door, I imagine retracing my path to where I got lost. Next, I pick my way along in the dark beside the creek till I’m out of the woods. Then I make the final walk beside the road that led back home. Each part of the trek brings an emotional response from my memories. By the time I’m back home, I’m also more relaxed and at peace than before I started.

Maybe this can help you too…

I still don’t always fall right to sleep, but it helps. Not only does it help me sleep, but I’ve also tried it as an exercise before I write or outline. It helps clear my mind then, too. The sensory details I include in my writing after one of these sessions are exceptional. Perhaps there is an event in your life that will help you achieve a similar result. With or without the beats…

I’d forgotten how deeply Thoreau and Emerson impacted me…


Deep Thoughts…

In high school, I read Thoreau, Emerson, and a host of other essayists and philosophers. I still have a young reader’s copy of Walden on my bookshelf. It sits next to Critias by Plato and Sun Tzu’s Art of War. They impacted me more than most of the Authors I read. Each was as much a seeker of truth as Socrates but much closer in time and space than any ancient philosopher.

Self –Reliance challenged me to awaken from the conformity of everyday life and live a life of purpose. A high goal for a fifteen-year-old kid. Thoreau went further in some ways. Walden and Civil Disobedience taught me it was not only legitimate to rail against injustice. It was my civic duty to oppose the Man and his Machine.

In the years since I first read their work, I’ve thought about how these two, who were friends in addition to contemporaries, changed my outlook on life. As an adult, the tedium of the sleeper crept back over me, but their writing has been my alarm bell a few times. I may not be fully awake, but I’m not snoring, either.  

Before writing this post, I read Self-Reliance and Civil Disobedience again. The words of both men echo in my mind as thunderous sermons delivered from long ago. Yet, I also have a new appreciation for them that I lacked in my youth. Part of that is having lived a life rather than expecting to live one. But the other, more subtle truth is that I know now from living what they meant. I am faithful to myself and obedient to civil authority, only as far as my conscience allows.

An update on the Centriole…

Short stories are so much fun to write!

The story of the Centriole is coming together, and I have some great twists in mind. It’s another story I’m writing for a monthly challenge. I tried not to build a whole new world just for one short story, but I failed. Fractal is a folded world near the very heart of creation. Life evolved there before it did anywhere else in the universe (several times). Naturally this gave the original inhabitants of Fractal a huge advantage over other more primitive life.

Rather than launch an empire building interstellar civilization, the Uluuan explored the universe, cataloging the species they encountered. They eventually encountered sentient species, but were reluctant to make direct contact. After much debate, the Uluuan extended offers of membership in a union of social, economic, academic, and military to those they deemed worthy of association. More violent or barbarous aliens were left to their own devices.

The Centriole is more than just a club…

The esteemed center of that exploration began (and continues to this day) in the Centriole. It is home to the Society of Explorers, a club of enthusiastic adventurers from thousands of species. Their quest to understand the universe and its former iterations is matched only by their success in amassing knowledge from billions of galaxies. My story focuses on one such Explorer, Ailish Halfnine.

Ailish is on the eve of launching the first full expedition from the Centriole to the primitive planet Earth. She has already scouted the planet alone, and brought back enough data to bring a full team. Her experts will examine our cultures, sample our flora and fauna, and duplicate and collect artifacts from our world.

Is a utopia founded on lies still a utopia?

She is understandably excited, and rushes to the Centriole to meet one last time with the patron of her expedition, Count Baalan of Derent on Time. She expects a routine send off from the Explorers Lounge with the Count’s inner circle, before embarking on a fantastic journey of discovery. All of that does not go entirely to plan. I can’t wait for you to discover the truth along with her.

A change of pace – Shades of Paradox

wooden model

The sky is a pretty saffron hue,

And I’m hanging by my toes-

Standing next to you.

The wind is pulsing vermillion,

And I’m carried by the breeze-

Before a house of ten billion.

The rocky sea is frozen felt,

And I’m drowning in the tide-

Before a single drop can melt.

The world is what shades make it,

And I’m a stringless puppet-

Dancing while I sit.

There are far worse things than zombies and ghosts prowling in the night…

In the world of my debut novel, Fantastic America, zombies and ghosts are the least dangerous things that go bump in the night. After the return of magic, monsters from many worlds reappear in the modern world. Creatures of nightmare, legend, and folklore prove they are all too real.

Unfortunately, animals considered myths by our ancestors are not the only creatures stalking the dark places of the world. Wraiths, shadowy imitations of life seek to terrify and corrupt the living. As magic grows stronger, the creatures it empowers grow bolder, and a scream in the night might not be human at all.

Other, far more potent monsters emerge from other worlds, intent on more than food and shelter. Mortal flesh provides more than nourishment to the fiends in the dark. They can also increase their numbers from victims of their wild hunts. Our ancestors were right to fear the dark, a lesson the modern world will need to relearn.

In the world of the Magic Unleashed series, the monsters in the dark are not content to stay in the shadows. They wait only for enough time, flesh, and blood to leave the darkness behind. No one from the modern world has learned how to fight back against the evils that lurk in darkness and only retreat from the light for the time being. Who will save humanity from such diabolical dangers?

Why describing your setting is so important…

people gathering in dome building
The Pantheon of Rome

The setting for a scene, or series of scenes grounds your story in more ways than one. Locations can impact everything from mood and theme, to climate and time periods. How you describe those elements can make or break a good scene (or scenes). Memorable settings come alive with appropriate (not just detailed) descriptions.

For example, how could I describe the Pantheon of Rome from the picture attached to this post? Depending on the scene I’m writing, there are any number of details that I could include. But the scene, and to an extent, the characters determine what is important for the reader to experience.

Is there action in my Pantheon scene, or is it a a puzzle to be deduced like a Dan Brown thriller? Maybe I’ll try my hand at Romance and describe two history buffs exploring the rotunda. They would notice far different things than a super-sleuth. Perhaps the building and it’s history are irrelevant to my story, and the people crowded inside are the focus of the characters.

It might go something like this:

A shaft of sunlight pierced the ancient oculus in the ceiling of the former temple. It bathed an empty niche high on the wall in vibrant light, as it had for two thousand years. The couple stood transfixed by the light that managed to reach them on the polished marble floor. For just a moment, they could step back in time together.

Even stripped of it’s Roman identity, and festooned with later Catholic regalia, the sight reminded Ian of the glory that was Rome. He squeezed Miranda’s shoulder as they gazed at the wonder of engineering the Pantheon represented to both of them. The crowd of tourists faded away as he imagined statues of the Gods in their niches, and bronze eagles surrounded by laurel wreaths representing the majesty of the Empire.

The characters drive the description but I still have to pick the right details

Ian and Miranda might not even see the same details, but writing the scene with a single character’s Point Of View requires a good understanding of Ian, too. A historian (even an amateur student of history) would pick out different details. Ian is focused on the Roman history of the temple, but in modern times, the Pantheon is a Catholic church. Miranda might pick out those details.

Even two people with similar interests might see things differently. Had I written the scene from Miranda’s POV, the later pieces of Christian decorations might have been her focus. Either way, the couple moving through the space determines what elements the readers see through their perspective.

Fantasy descriptions and real locations can overlap…

The Pantheon of Rome is a fabulous location, but it isn’t a fantasy setting as we know it. One thing I love to do is dress up a real location with fantasy trappings. I can imagine the same setting Ian and Miranda moved through, with an added fantastic element (or several). Not to detract from the real location, but to raise the expectation of the audience.

Perhaps the characters are fleeing a horde of zombies, or are racing against time to perform a ritual in the ancient temple. Only a site standing for thousands of years can give them refuge, or allow the spell to reach its intended effect. The appropriate details would be far different than a casual stroll through the rotunda. Barring the doors, measuring out the space for the ritual, setting up barricades, or lighting ceremonial candles might be more important. Characters and the events they are involved in direct their focus and what details I include in the scene.

You may have noticed some changes around here…

I’m in the last stages of some site updates to clean things up a bit. The changes shouldn’t impact reading my posts at all. If you do run into trouble loading a specific page, please let me know. Everything should be finished and stabilized in a few days at most.

In the mean time, I’ll be adding new download options for free short stories once the updates are done. Some of these are new stories for me, and a couple have been on the shelf fermenting for a few months. I’m excited to share them with you.

My 365 days of consecutive blog posts is coming to an end, too. August 28th will mark a full year of daily posts. I feel like an out of shape runner who can finally see the finish line. My vision is blurry, but I’m almost there. I will probably still post fairly often, but not daily.

Just to keep you in the loop, I’m still working on the Centriole story. I’m mixing genres with it ever so slightly, as science fiction meets fantasy. My take is very human centered, though the perspective readers will see the story from is very alien. Magic remains the great unknown in this story.

I think that’s about all for the end of summer. Kids here are going back to school, I have more peace and quiet, and that should translate into more writing time. I’ll keep my progress posted here, and I hope you’ll check in on me from time to time. And remember, like Heinlein said, TANSTAAFL!

Getting back into my groove has been harder than I expected.

macbook pro

I had a lot of raw emotion to deal with last week, and to be honest, I let it get the better of me for a while. I’ve tried to slide back into my writing routine, tried to follow my advice and get back to it. I failed. Repeatedly.

Failure is a great teacher though, it tells me all the things that don’t work. For one thing, trying to ignore how sad I was didn’t help. Drinking to excess also didn’t help, it was fun while it lasted, but I have new bruises I can’t account for. The only real solution I found was to confront my feelings and get my butt back in the chair.

Funny how that works, isn’t it? I penned a post about how much I’d miss my cat Chloe. What I didn’t mention was any of the stress induced medical conditions that flared up while I was in my feelings. Those are gross, and I’ll spare you all the details. I’m better now.

And since I’m better, I’m back to my desk and pushing out more words. It isn’t exactly work, but without my muse over my shoulder, it does take some effort. The truth is, it feels good to create, to overcome my inner struggle and produce meaningful content. Even if it’s only meaningful to me and a handful of other people.

So, expect to read about Ashley, Gari, and the other new characters I’ve been writing about lately. There are adventures to be had, strange settings to explore, and new conflicts to resolve. I may not be 100% again, but I’m well on my way.

A change of pace – We, the Gathered Angels

We, the gathered angels

Summoned from on high

Stand to debate

A point of fate

Cast for a certain fly.

You might wonder why angels

Would be concerned with a fly.

It is just that

It influences a rat,

This particular fly.

And why, you ask, would angels,

Worry about a rat and fly?

Because of course,

It spooks a horse

(The rat leaping for the fly.)

Well, what does a horse have to do with angels

Or for that matter a rat and fly?

They you see, are the key

To this poor old farmer McGhee

(The horse, the rat, and the fly.)

Now we’re getting somewhere for angels,

You say as you start to cry

Because of course,

You’re on the horse,

And you’re about to die.

And that’s the talk of angels.

Yesterday I lost a piece of my heart…

Me and Chloe

Our cat was part of our family.

Just over sixteen years ago, I got a cat for my son. We’d just moved into a new house (where we still live) and I wanted him to have a pet. Cats are independent, pretty low maintenance, and he loves cats. Win – win, right? So I went to the local shelter and brought home a rescue kitty, I can’t even remember what we named him though. He died in my bedroom doorway within days.

I went back to the humane society and looked for another tabby cat as close to what he looked like as I could find. That’s when Chloe found me. She climbed right up into my arms at the shelter. I brought her home and she was as much my cat as she was my son’s. She lived a good long life and we were lucky to have her.

She was mostly a house cat. I’m not much for the outdoors, and neither was Chloe. She’d lay in the sunshine on our front porch, but in all the years she was with us, Chloe only left our yard to go to the vet. She did love to snuggle though, and she spent as much time in my lap as she did anywhere else in the house. I’ll miss looking down and realizing she’d snuck into my lap without me noticing again.

It was hard to let her go.

Last weekend, Chloe went to hide in our basement, which was not unusual for her. What was different was that she didn’t want to come back upstairs. I took her food and water, and checked on her all weekend. But she hardly budged except to use the litter box. Monday morning I found her asleep at the foot of the basement steps, like she wanted to come upstairs but couldn’t make it.

I brought her up, tired to get her to eat or drink, but she was in a daze. She was walking, but unsteady on her feet. I took her out for some fresh air on the front porch, but she seemed confused. She kept walking in circles, no matter where she wanted to go. One side of her body was stiff compared to the other. I’d seen that before in people who’d suffered a stroke.

Off we went to the vet. They did bloodwork, which all came back healthy. Chloe was dehydrated, and just really old. They gave her fluids, and sent us home with antibiotics. We hoped she might snap out of whatever was wrong with her. But that didn’t happen. We watched her slowly deteriorate over the next three days. She stopped trying to walk, even to use the litterbox. We held her, snuggled her, and said our goodbyes.

Yesterday, we knew she was suffering. She purred in our laps, but even that was an effort. I’d never had to put a pet down before, so I struggled with the decision. Eventually, we were back at the vet’s office, but this time, in a small room with a couch to say our final farewell.

It was terrible. One minute she was alive. She was tired, but awake. The next minute, the vet injected a small vial of bluish sedative-laced ‘medicine’ in her leg. Within seconds of the injection, she relaxed and seconds later, she was gone.

Loss is impossible to adequately prepare for.

I knew I loved Chloe, but I was unprepared for the flood of memories and emotions that overwhelmed me. From her first moments in our home, to her last breath in my arms, she was a good companion, for my son and for the rest of our family. I don’t think I’ll have another cat. We’ve taken in strays before, but they were mostly outside cats, we never had another house cat like Chloe.

It sounds a bit silly to write about how much losing Chloe affected me. But it made me think about how I approach loss and grief in my writing. It’s difficult to write about emotions you’ve never or rarely felt. While I don’t wish loss or pain on anyone, I have a new appreciation for making difficult choices when faced with no good options.

I have a fresh wound in my soul that I couldn’t have prepared for, even though I knew Chloe was old and wouldn’t live forever. She’s gone, but she’s also still in our minds, and our hearts. So, as long as we keep those memories alive, she isn’t entirely gone either. Like losing the people we love who live on through us, Chloe is still here for a little while longer.

Are we alone in the universe?

blue and white planet display

Catching up takes us to weird topics…

I had a long talk with an old friend today. One of the topics that came up is something I address in my writing. Are humans the only sentient species in the universe? It reminded me of Arthur C. Clarke’s quote, “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” Which is an excellent summation of Enrico Fermi’s famous paradox, probability says we are not alone, “But where is everybody?” It’s been 70 years since Fermi’s comment, and there is still no accepted evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations.

In my writing, I solve the paradox by imagining what that life may look like. I’ve created a number of civilizations who have visited Earth in the past. In my first published short stories, the Renegade Galaxy series, Humanity is part of a small group of interstellar civilizations in the Milky Way. In my fantasy series, Earth is also connected to alien worlds but has played a mostly minor role in their history.

Is there anybody out there?

In real life, Seti (the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence) has yet to find solid proof of alien life. NASA has tantalizing evidence that Mars may have supported life in the past, but has yet to publish anything definitive. I get to bypass reality and speculate, “What if…” in my fiction, but the underlying question remains. Are we alone or not?

The implications are staggering regardless of the answer. Fundamental questions humans have grappled with about why we are here, what our purpose may be, and whether this was all just a big mistake could be answered once and for all. If we’re the center of creation, maybe we are alone. If we’re not, humanity may be more insignificant than we thought. Or so rare as that our sentient nature alone makes us special in the vast void of space.

Maybe it doesn’t matter one way or the other.

Regardless of the answer to Fermi’s question, there is certainty in the stories I tell that we are not alone. Even if we haven’t been visited recently. My biggest practical lesson from either outcome is this: Life goes on. Humans want to live, to thrive, to leave something behind for future generations. Maybe that’s the only purpose we can hold on to with the data we have right now.

I’ve been reading the Magic of Recluce Saga since the 90’s

There is a lot to love about Recluce:

Full disclosure: This will not be a review of the books or even a comprehensive review of the series. I hated book reports in elementary school, and I’m not doing book reviews here. all I want to do is share what I like and dislike about this series. Mr. Modesitt has twenty two books on my library shelves, I’m thoroughly invested.

There is a lot to like in these books. If you’re unfamiliar with Recluce, I’ll summarize. The world of Recluce is in an alternate dimension from Modesitt’s Parafaith War. I’ve never read those books, but that’s what all the commentary I’ve read talks about. Two factions from this war made it to this Earth-like planet. An intentional colonization effort by the Rationalist Demons who built the nation state of Cyador, and the crew of a single combat vessel from the Black Angels crash land to build the country of Westwind on the roof of the World.

Strangely, there are already humans on the planet before either group settles there. The new arrivals carve out new homes, although both countries are eventually destroyed. While a few survivors flee to other countries around them. The majority of traditions from both Cyador and Westwind die with them. Chaos and Order, the magic both societies were born from, remains.

Chaos and Order: The Yin and Yang of Recluce

In the world of Recluce, Chaos and Order embody powerful forces controlled by human thought. Chaos is a fiery destructive force used by White Wizards, and Order is a strong preservative force wielded by Black Mages. More powerful than either are so called Grey Mages who wield Chaos and Order together. These two forces shape every significant event throughout the series.

Each book takes a single character and shows the reader pivotal moments in their lifetime. We read about more than eighteen hundred years of the history of this world. The individual hopes and dreams of each character also show the development of nations, armies, magic users, and ordinary inhabitants throughout the world of recluce. Modesitt shows economic, social, environmental, and technological changes to his world from the arrival of the Demons to the eventual destructive balance between Chaos and Order.

Most of the stories initially focused on the continent of Candar. Both Cyador and Westwind were located on this continent. Recluce is a large island off the east coast of Candar, so this choice of setting made sense. Modesitt expanded our understanding of the rest of his world with books set on the continents of Nordla, Austra, and Hamor.

The magic system around which the series revolves, is simple but profound. White magery is powerful at destruction, balanced against black magery that is powerful at preservation. Either can destroy those who use them if taken to extremes. The ultimate order is to stop all motion, while the ultimate chaos consumes all matter it comes into contact with. Used together, the two forces can accomplish even more incredible feats.

Neither Chaos nor Order can change human nature, or our tendencies to be cruel or uncaring of the fates of others. Only good people doing the best they can for one another can make the world a better place. Modesitt’s characters strive to do that, whether they are Chaos Wizards, Order Mages, or Grey Mages.

The Recluce Series showed me how much my reading habits have changed over thirty years.

Despite the great success of the series, and my personal devotion to reading it, the twenty two published books are far from perfect. When I read The Magic of Recluse, I had no idea I would one day write novels. I read for pure enjoyment, and didn’t critique the narrative as it unfolded. I found the most recent book, Fairhaven Rising, impossible to digest without critiquing.

Mr. Modesitt has sold over three million copies of Recluce Books, he can get away with things my critique group would skewer me for writing. The problem for me, is that I have come to expect those things in his writing, and without realizing it at first, I’ve had to edit out my versions of those same phrases and ideas. Maybe when I have millions of copies sold, I can fall back on my heathen, Modesitt ways.

My only real disappointment in the series came from the book, The Wellspring of Chaos. The main character of that book spends a great deal of the first third of the book suffering at the hands of a corrupt ruler’s son. He’s tried, convicted, punished, then released from the local justice system, which is anything but just. Later in the novel he learns that system better than those who administer it, but he never faces off against that system. To a child of the 80’s, it was a missed opportunity to turn the system on it’s head. Damn the man, save the Empire!