Reluctant heroes, and why I like them.

person in black shorts floating on water

This is the opposite of the Chosen One. An ordinary person sees a need and steps up to help. They don’t have an agenda, or ulterior motives, just a sense of right over wrong. Maybe it stems from all the 80’s movies I watched as a kid. The group or lone wolf who wants to change the world for the better still resonates with me.

Destiny forces the Chosen One into saving the world. The reluctant hero decides they have a moral obligation to risk life and limb. Of the two, I’d prefer the latter over the former. Both are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. The reluctant hero can be any of us though. The Chosen One is set apart. Destiny doesn’t care how they feel about it.

I’ve lost track of how many Chosen Ones bemoaned their fate. “Why me? I didn’t choose this!” The Reluctant hero doesn’t ask why me, they ask, “If not me, who will?” It has a more honest, more human, feeling to how any of us might respond given the situation. That is the core of the idea for me. Whether it’s the lone office worker stopping tanks on their way to Tiananmen Square, or the guy fed up with red tape taking on the system directly, defiance is my jam.

I’m not trying to encourage random acts of violence either. The movie, Turk 182 comes to mind when I think of this trope. Non-violent protest and civil disobedience can still bring change. It may not be as sexy as a kill-dozer, but not every story has to include death, destruction, and mayhem.

In my lived experience, the right person, in the right place, at the right time, can make change happen. Others have to embrace what begins with one voice. The chorus is powerful because they sing together, not because of the soloist. No matter how great that single voice may be.

A change of pace – The Ruler and the Rule

fashion man love people

Listen,

What do you hear?

Is that the soft sound of stillness

Brushing past your ear?

Or the rushing roar of wisdom,

Ripping out your fear.

And that,

Are those images the same kind?

A fleeting glance of nothing

Playing with your mind.

Or just the touch of a passing shadow,

That your eye can never find.

Don’t speak,

You’ll ruin the moment.

Scent and touch that tell so much,

Are never truly silent.

So we find our senses tell us nothing,

But rule us as a tyrant.

I toured Masada in the 1990’s

Masada and the Snake Path

The desert is hellish, dry and hot. Not somewhere I’d want to to go again. But in younger, healthier days, I toured this unbelievable historical site. The stories surrounding the fortress, and the infamy of what happened there is not the focus of this post. Although they are great stories, and have inspired generations of people around the world. this story is all about me.

Picture a younger, more impetuous, Steve. One who was invincible, overconfident, and dangerously stupid. First, a bit about the tour. A group of sailors set out from Haifa for a two day tour. We spent the first day in Jerusalem, I got to visit “the manger” in Bethlehem, the Garden of gethsemane, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. We spent the night in Tel Aviv, then floated in the Dead Sea, visited a revitalizing spa, and toured Masada before returning to Haifa.

The Dead sea is incredibly salty, enough that you can float on the water. I don’t recommend trying to pee in the Dead Sea, don’t ask why, just trust me! But all that desert heat and salt water dehydrated our tour group. Fortunately, the next stop was the spa. Dead Sea mud is supposed to rejuvenate your body, and I can attest to that. By the time we reached the Masada tourist center we were all brimming with twenty-something energy.

The tour included a cable car ride up to the mountaintop, a tour guide to highlight the history, myths, and mysteries about the palace and rebel stronghold. All of that was fascinating. Again, I’m setting the scene for my near death experience. Here it comes.

After the tour, we were given the choice to ride the cable car back down (about a half an hour wait), or we could take the snake path down the mountain immediately. The tour guide told us it would be about the same amount of time to get back the the tourist center and the bus back to Haifa either way. The hook for me was the authenticity of walking down the only route to the palace before the modern, tourist-friendly cable car was installed.

You guessed it, I took the path less traveled by… I was doing well for a while, too. There are a lot of switchbacks on this path, you can see them clearly in the photo above. At about the third one from the top, I lost my footing. I’d already seen an older shipmate in our group wipe out higher on the path. I didn’t have time to process the merits of falling, but I was sure I didn’t want to walk the rest of the way down the mountain bloody.

My split-second decision instead? RUN! The rocks were loose and sharp between the path, but I was close enough to the turn to leap down to the next section. I figured I’d catch myself after the hair-pin turn and go back to my leisurely pace. I was wrong. Once I’d built up momentum, the path was just steep enough to keep me running.

So I ran down Masada. Then jogged up the gulch beside it, passing tourists from lots of different countries along the way (Canada and Norway stand out for some reason), and reached the tourist center in less than fifteen minutes. Fortunately, the center sold bottles of cold water. Authenticity has seldom been as important to me since this event. I needed the whole ride back to Haifa to recover. Ah, memories that last a lifetime. 🙂

Revision is harder (for me) than writing…

rewrite edit text on a typewriter

I’m on the writing spectrum some where in between a pantser and a plotter. I like have things planned out, but I also like to see where the flow of words will go naturally. When I wrote the short story introducing Gari and Torthal, I pantsed. When I started a follow up story, expanding on that introduction, I tried to pants it again, but failed. So now I’m plotting out his next series of adventures.

So here I am, writing a new story bible, filling in the blanks I left, and following an outline. Gari has a bigger story to tell (or show) than I expected. One that is appropriate for the times we are living through. Although he is as far from those events and ideas as possible, the world seen through his eyes will be hauntingly familiar. Gari examines prejudice, fear of change, and what it means to be human. Heady ideas indeed!

I’ve also expanded my ideas for Torthal. The kernel was already there in, “Gari and the Pox”. Now I have a deeper purpose behind how I approach this strange new world, and the distant civilization it represents. The world of Torthal will be a character in Gari’s story as much as any person he encounters.

But my revision of the second installment is where my mind is right now. I want to bring the world to life around Gari, and my first attempt fell far short of that. The great thing about words on the page is that they can be rewritten, deleted, or replaced with new words. So that is what I’ll be doing for a while, rewriting for Gari’s sake.

Critique partners keep me humble…

man and woman holding each other s hands as a team

Not that my head had grown too big for my hat, lately. If it had, one of the writers groups I’m in would gladly have brought me back down a size. Having critique partners is invaluable. Not only have I learned more about writing from them, but they’ve kept me grounded after making progress.

There is a kind of magic critique groups can wield. When you find a group that wants everyone to improve, whose members offer more than a casual read of your work, that’s golden. The best critique groups lift up writers who are struggling to find their voice, and share the tools to set them free.

Admittedly there is some terrible advice out there. Some writers have it all figured out, and anything that upsets their view cannot be tolerated. Others honestly believe every rule they learned should be followed every single time they write. Grammar trumps story for these folks, but they are pretty easy to spot. When you find them (especially if they are running the group) RUN!

I can’t stress enough, especially for new writers just starting out, find your tribe. There are people out there who want to hear you, who need to hear you. Those people will enrich your life as much as you will theirs, but you have to make your way out of the wilderness. You have to sort through the good and bad advice, learn the fundamentals, more than just mechanics. Then you’ll be able to reach the readers who need you.

One kind of magic is Ambient…

spooky witch among candles during ritual

Or in the Magic Unleashed series, Arcane Magic. Arcanists have many names across many cultures, but all are able to tap into the naturally occurring magic of the Earth itself. They have a wider variety of skills, but are generally less potent than wizards, empowered by distinctly different forces. Their link to earthly forces gives Arcanists a different view of magic in general, leading to a wide variety of magical traditions.

Arcanists are able to feel magic tugging at them. Even during the bleak times of no magic when other magic users can not. This is not always positive, as seeing things others can’t see leads to questions of sanity. In past ages, it has also lead to accusations of witchcraft and consorting with unclean powers. While a few of those accusations were warranted, most were pure nonsense.

At certain places and times, Arcanists can access their magical gifts even when no magic flows in the world. These times are difficult to predict, but there is a ready substitute. During the past six thousand year absence of magic, some arcanists have turned to human sacrifice to fuel their abilities. Some magic users adopted this practice by themselves. Corrupting entities whispering from the shadows influenced the others.

With the return of magic, Arcanists have regained the full spectrum of their abilities. From communicating with ghosts, manipulating probability, projecting physical force, locking spellwork into physical objects, to joining wizardly magic together in specialized constructs, Arcanists have a major role to play in a world awash in magical power. Though they have less raw power than Wizards, Arcanists are still powerful magic users with abilities others do not possess.

Arcanists are more numerous than Wizards

Readers will meet their first Arcanist in Fantastic America: The Magic Unleashed. Jerry Farmer, the psychopathic escapee demonstrates the havoc even a novice magic user can wreak on the modern world. Jerry could see ghosts before magic returned, and this is often a sign of greater abilities to come. Even so, he has become more powerful than he might have been otherwise with the help of shadowy wraiths.

Other Arcanists will follow, many have standalone short stories set in the Magic Unleashed world. Chaz Buhrman hosts a ghost hunting reality TV show, finding more than he bargains for on the night magic returns to the Earth. Dr. Moses in New Orleans follows the traditions of his family in watching over the Crescent City, even before the return of magic. Gavin Dalton serves the self-styled Dragon Emperor in New York City. And Adriana Rivera travels the world in search of relics from the last magical age.

Sometimes I make things too complicated…

photo of golden cogwheel on black background

In my quest to write stories that entertain readers, I often go through multiple iterations of the same ideas. Sometimes I mix and match those ideas to give them a fresh look or spin. But in the end they are just variations on a theme.

The worst situation I find myself in as a writer, is when the mixing and matching has written me into a corner. Complex situations make it problematic for me, even if it’s not always a problem for the characters. When I’ve had some time to sort out why a scene is bothering me, it usually comes down to unnecessary complexity.

More than a few times I have leaned into that preposterous complexity. It can be fun to see how absurd I can take an idea while keeping it somewhat believable. The easiest solution is usually to cut out the complications and simplify everything. Easier, from an editing point of view, but not from a writing perspective.

I the Magic Unleashed series, the first four books in the series happen at roughly the same time. Scenes from one book have immediate repercussions in the other books. The characters don’t all meet right away, or interact much at first, but when they do, it caused me some logistical problems. How does character A get to location B in only X number of hours? Can they still be back in location Y in time for event 76? Spreadsheets saved the day, but so far, it’s taken almost a month to reconcile everything.

The Chosen One and why I hate the idea…

boy wearing crown statue

A few years ago, the Chosen One trope was all the rage in fiction. Rand Al’thor was the Dragon Reborn, Neo was The One, and a kid from under the stairs was about to take on He Who Shall Not Be Named. Readers loved it, for a while.

Today the trope has fallen out of favor, and I for one, am happy to keep it that way. Even as a child, I didn’t appreciate the idea of predetermined destiny or fate. I remember reading Shakespeare in high school, and my English teacher explained the Fates and Furies to the class. A lot of the really terrible poetry I wrote after that included lines about fighting against both concepts.

In the Magic Unleashed series, I turn the Chosen One trope on it’s head a couple of times. One Chosen One is a villain, chosen to wreak havoc on the living. Another character believes the lie that he is the chosen one. He’s just being manipulated, but he wants to believe he’s special. Both characters challenge any notion that destiny is unavoidable. Like Captain Kirk in the Kobayashi Maru simulation, I prefer to make my own luck.

There is enough cause and effect in the world to consign ideas about fate and destiny to the books of the past. Sometimes a coincidence is just a coincidence. In my limited experience, the universe doesn’t make a habit of aligning to create a perfect situation that can only be solved by a single special individual. I understand why that trope is popular, and I’m sure many authors out there still have Chosen One stories to write. I’m just not one of them.

One kind of magic is Death Magic…

abstract anatomy art blur

Or in the Magic Unleashed series, Necromancy. Death Magic is a spiritual force, that opposes Life Magic. Other magic users universally shun Necromancy. Unlife, a major component of Death magic, is a corruptive source of misery for all living things. In combat, necromancers rely on undead minions under their direct control, along with constructs and weapons of hardened shadow.

Necromancers are at home among graveyards, mausoleums, and forsaken ruins. While most Death Magic spellwork requires fresh corpses or living victims, any dead flesh will do in a pinch. Only carrion eaters and animals that assist decomposition will reluctantly answer a Necromancer’s call for aid.

One of many horrifying practices of Death wizards is haruspicy. This is a type of scrying that uses the still warm liver and entrails to seek hidden knowledge. Like other forms of scrying, the necromancer may glimpse the future, lost things, or learn new skills. Haruspicy is intuitive, but also relies on the intention of the haruspex and what they seek.

Readers will meet fledgling Necromancer Vincent Deveraux in book four of the Magic Unleashed series, Raising New Orleans. Formerly a morgue worker and mortuary student, Vincent is initially unaware of the changes around him. He has a potent advantage over other newly empowered magic users. The ghost of Marie Laveau is his mentor in the collection and use of unlife.

I thought the world was changing…

planet earth

I went to Europe the first time when I was 20 years old. The continent was exciting and exotic to my wide eyed innocence. Changes were on the horizon, but I had no idea what that meant. For me, everything I saw was new and different from what I’d known in America.

The Berlin wall fell, the Soviet Union imploded, and the specter of nuclear war faded a bit from the headlines. Maybe, I thought, the peace and prosperity the world wanted was finally at hand. That wasn’t the case, but I remember hoping, even expecting a lasting change.

Today, Russia is a growing power again, though they’ve learned some hard lessons along the way. China, has joined them as a dangerous little brother all grown up and ready to prove himself on the world stage. Europe has undergone a raft of demographic changes, but remains haunted by the scars of incessant warfare. There have been changes, but few for the better.

Meanwhile, America has stood by and either ignored those changes, or pushed an agenda on other parts of the world that never made any sense to me. Withdrawing from Afghanistan, after a decade of occupation has brought more chaos to that corner of the globe than our invasion ever could have. Iraq is not much different, but America has an incentive to stay there, if only for the oil Iraq produces. We became Imperialists despite the best of intentions.

So, I guess I was right. The world was changing. It is changing. The world is always changing, because people are always changing. The problem is not that things change, or even how they change. The problem is allowing those changes to frighten us into making decisions about those changes that make world more dangerous. More dangers are coming.

A change of pace – The Surf

focus photography of sea waves

The surf rolls on                      

Over corals             

And sand                

The surf rolls on       

Over morals and man     

The breakers surge over 

On rocks                

And on reefs            

The breakers surge over 

On locks                

And beliefs             

Life is the ocean       

That surges            

And rolls               

Life is the ocean       

That purges our souls               

One kind of magic is Aqueous…

silhouette of moutain

Or in the Magic Unleashed series, Water Wizardry. Aqueous magic is an elemental force, the opposite of Fire magic. Water, and the creatures who live beneath its surface respond to water wizards. In combat, Aqueous wizards manipulate water and dissipate heat to wield both liquid water and ice as potent weapons.

Water wizards are at home on or beneath any body of water, but prefer the open sea where their power is greatest. On land, Water magic is limited by the supply of water or ice available. Creatures who make their home in or near water are responsive to the call of Aqueous wizards, and will help them if asked (or in predators cases, commanded).

Water wizards also have access to water scrying. By entering a trancelike state, Aqueous wizards can use water as a medium to find lost things, learn new skills, and see possible future events. These visions are unpredictable, and only as reliable as the intention of the scryer. But they do offer glimpses of what may become reality.

Readers will meet Aqueous wizard Mariah Davis, a marine biologist PHD candidate. She is on sabbatical when magic returns to the Earth in book three of the Magic Unleashed series, The Steaming South. Mariah embraces her watery gifts and makes a scientific study of her newfound powers. She is the first modern wizard to write grimoire of her spellwork.

Dreams and how they affect my writing…

high angle view of lying down on grass

This isn’t about manifesting your dreams into reality. I have author friends who are all about that woo-woo mindset matters business. This is about how parts of dreams I have make their way into my stories.

I don’t remember everything I dream about, but I can lucid dream on occasion. When my mind isn’t too lazy to put in the effort at least, I have vivid dreams. Some of those dreams involve fairly complex plots, interesting characters, and wild action scenes. Those are the ones I wake trying to scribble down details from before I forget them.

I don’t keep a regular dream journal, that may be a thing for some people, but not me. Instead, I have a note pad app on my phone. If I have a really intense dream, or remember some crazy plotline, those go into the app as fast as I can type. I don’t keep my phone by my bed, so sometimes i still scribble notes while I’m half asleep.

My subconscious is sometimes even more creative than I am. At least I feel that way when a fully developed story plays out through a long winter’s nap. Some of the best ideas in the Magic Unleashed series came from dreams. Either as I woke up, or more often as I’m trying to drift off to sleep. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve had to jump out of bed to jot down the perfect solution to a writing problem. What a terrible problem to have.

My great uncle had perfect Sunday School attendance for over 73 years.

That means he went to church every Sunday, hours before that week’s worship service (even while he was a prisoner of war in world war two). His achievement is an extraordinary level of dedication and testament of his faith. My grandmother, his sister, always held up his example when I complained about going with her to Sunday school and church.

Here’s something I realized many years ago. Despite the inspiring accomplishment that Uncle Julian achieved so many years in a row, he wasn’t always a shining light in our family. He never married, lived an austere life that suited his devotion, but was often bitter for reasons I can only begin to imagine. Julian lived in the same home he grew up in for most of his life.

More than his faith and attendance, I remember him being mean to his adult sisters. I didn’t like that, and told him so whenever I visited. He was a hard worker, retiring from the same job he’d started before WWII in the late 1990’s. He stayed busy after retiring, spent even more time at church, or helped as he could in the small community where he lived most of his life.

I relate this little bit of family history because like my Uncle Julian, the characters I write about are complex. Individuals are seldom one or two dimensional characters, and that holds true for the people in my stories. Uncle Julian had great faith and determination, but he held anger and resentment that our family endured the six days a week he wasn’t at church.

One kind of magic is Celestial…

left human hand photo

Or in the Magic Unleashed series, Life magic. As the name implies, Life magic is primarily a force for healing. It’s practitioners also possess a wide range of combat abilities, mainly for fighting the undead (Necromancy) and creatures of Chaos (Fire magic). Life wizards are champions of order. They can manipulate hardened light to create weapons, defenses, and perform rituals the promote peace and health.

Life magic has several peculiarities that set it apart from other kinds of magic. Augury, or the interpretation of sky signs and bird behaviors. Auspices take the form of weather, and the behavior of individual birds and flocks. All these signs and portents speak to Life wizards and inform their decision making.

Another trait unique to Life wizards is long lasting youth and beauty. Because they work directly with health and life itself, Celestial wizards age more slowly than other mortals. Their joy for living also makes them charismatic and attractive to others. But like all magic users, Life wizards do age and eventually die.

Readers will meet Elizabeth Fairchild in the second book in the series, Midwestern Magicians. She is learning how to use her powers along with all the other wizards in the series. Her experiences with healing, fighting the undead, and coming to terms with how magic is changing her are just the beginning of her story.

A change of pace – Before Dawn

silhouette of tree near body of water during golden hour

There is a sacredness to the hush before dawn
When stillness settles over one tiny slice of the world
After another.
Every bird call and shifting tree limb sounds disrespectful
As if they were interrupting an orchestrated silence
Before the day takes its first breath.
Rejoice in the silence.
That still moment holds a treasure more dear
Than the golden promise of sunrise.
It offers gratitude for yesterday and hope
For the limitless possibilities
Of today.

I almost forgot to post today!

nature flowers blue flower
Forget-me-not Flowers

I have a lot on my plate lately, but I’m still writing, still querying, and still sharing my progress here. Fantastic America is my priority as a finished novel, but I’ve also put the manuscript aside lately to build up Gari’s adventures in the strange world of Torthal. I have a dozen other ideas for stories I’ve held off on while I worked on FA , but I will be writing more of those stories soon.

I feel like I’m closer than ever to a solid query, and I’m anxious to move forward with it. I’m also putting my short story hat back on. I’m plotting out several new stories in both the Magic Unleashed series and unrelated stories I’ve just not had the chance to work on lately. Summer is busy, but I can’t help but write when my muse pours the words on the page for me.

Overall, I’m happy with how my work is going. The ideas I’m experimenting with are fun, and the chills are multiplying as the ideas coalesce. New characters are taking shape, and the scenes in my head are making it onto the page (even though some are just outlines right now). I’ll share more here as I can.

Author voice versus author intrusion…

man with megaphone pointing

An author’s voice comes through once a writer learns who they are and how they speak (or write) to their audience. It’s a beautiful thing to find your voice and lift it up for the world to hear. Author intrusion is totally different and jarring to readers. It can pull them out of an otherwise well written and enjoyable story.

There are certainly times when authors intentionally addresses their audience. Done well, this can enhance a story, add layers to the world the reader is immersed in, and provide deeper insight into t atopic. Author intrusion is NOT that situation, it’s usually an accident on the author’s part, and adds little or nothing to the story.

Here are some examples: Offering direct opinions, screwing up the Point of View, or screwing up the setting (description or interactions). Each is a mistake (often a simple oversight). I’ve been guilty of some of these, but try to catch them whenever I can. There are a lot more, but this gives you a place to start looking for them.

Offering Direct Opinions

A character is engaged in some detail of the story, they are busy describing whatever that is, and out of no where, think something uncharacteristic. This can be an observation about how unfair life is, how difficult the situation is, or how tragic the outcome may be. If the character wouldn’t think these thoughts without the writer over their shoulder, they shouldn’t think it at all. This ruins the illusion of free agency at least, or throws an unfamiliar attitude at the audience at worst.

As authors, we try to get inside the characters we create to bring them to life. If a character is significantly like the author in the real world, it can be easy to toss our personal impressions to that character without anyone noticing. When the character is distinctly different from the author, the intrusion is even more apparent, and jarring to the reader.

Screwing up the Point of View

This is related to opinions, but different enough to get individual treatment. Unique POV is paramount in effective modern day storytelling. A character has to offer readers a perspective only that voice can bring them. A lens through which the details of a story are filtered and focused. Messing that up with extra tidbits is a sure way to ruin that perspective.

Authors spend hours crafting world, scenes, and moving characters through plot events. Invariably some of that work is left out of the story, but remains lodged in our minds. When that bit of background flotsam makes it onto the page anyway, I’ve screwed up the point of view. This is jarring too, especially if it’s out of step with the POV character’s persona or experience.

Screwing up the Setting

This is close to the POV but specific to the setting in a scene or the whole story. Authors love to show off the world they’ve built (me included). So much so, that if we aren’t careful the characters may show knowledge they couldn’t possibly have about it. If a character spills a secret that the author wants the audience to know, they’ve violated this principle of author intrusion.

I caught myself doing this after a fight scene not long ago. The characters are talking after it’s over, and one remarked about how well the other fought. The problem there was that this character never saw the other attack. So their commentary was out of place, no one else in my beta read or challenge group caught this. But I found it and fixed it, because I knew how jarring it would be for anyone else who figured that out.

Readers will give an author wide leeway in how their characters interact, but there has to be internal consistency to maintain that leeway. Writers can ruin a suspension of disbelief with any of these mistakes. Catching them before they have the chance to do that is part of our job as writers.

One kind of magic is Lithic…

bird s eye view of mountains during dawn

Or in the Magic Unleashed series, Earth magic. Earth magic is the opposite of Sorcery. Where the latter is focused on matters of the mind, the former is concerned with transforming the world around it. Lithic magic can build and tear down in equal measures. The ground beneath our feet is the plaything of Earth wizards. They can manipulate or change every mineral, plant, and animal tied to the soil with their their magic.

Sorcerers split their awareness between the Realm and the waking world. Earth wizards focus on building and maintaining the life they know. In the world of Fantastic America, all wizards are learning how to use their powers. One of the first manifestations of that power comes from speaking with the animals that call Earth home.

Earth wizards can communicate with, befriend, and control living things. Though humans find it easier to communicate with other vertebrates, especially mammals, their is no reason they couldn’t learn to control insects, sea sponges, or microbes. But this command and control of living things is not their principal ability.

As the name implies, Earth wizards can command stones, crystals, and metals of all kinds. They can manipulate them, build with them, or use them to tear down other structures. As impressive as that sounds, it is only a fraction of their true might. Gravity itself can bend to their will, bringing with it a host of abilities.

Despite this awesome array of powers, Earth wizards are not omnipotent. They are mortals destined to live and die the same as any other. There is no philosopher’s stone that can turn back the clock as they age and pass away.

Readers of the Magic Unleased series will meet Adam Goetz, in the fourth book in the series, Raising New Orleans. As a newly empowered Earth wizard, he views his power as a curse. The story follows Adam’s path from seeing an affliction become a gift. One that he must learn to use as a weapon against an insidious evil.