Creative Colleagues: John Helfers

John Helfers

John Helfers

Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

John Helfers and I first met at or between panels at the Writer’s Symposium at Gen Con. (Incidentally, the Symposium is an amazing convention-within-a-convention, perfect for readers and writers alike.) While we hadn’t worked together before Champions of Aetaltis, for years I could hardly browse Facebook without seeing a mutual friend mention his latest anthology. He’s a busy guy.

Fortunately, not too busy to answer a few questions now that Champions of Aetaltis is available for purchase.

As a writer and editor, how do you adjust your approach from one task to the other? Perhaps you can offer us an Aetaltis example of how it’s different to write and edit in the setting.

The Champions of Aetaltis anthology is kind of an anomaly for me, as it’s the only project I’ve been involved with as both a co-editor and an author. Normally I don’t cross those streams on projects I’m involved in, as I want to leave as much room for the contributing authors as possible. But since this is Marc’s created world, and he specifically asked me to write a story when he first approached me about editing the project, I decided to go ahead and wear both hats.

It has been one of the best projects I’ve ever been involved with. Not only was my co-editor terrific to work with, but I got to work with some of the biggest names in the RPG media-tie in business; you, of course, as well as Ed Greenwood, Elaine Cunningham, David Farland, Mel Odom, Erin Evans, Jean Rabe, Elizabeth A. Vaughan, Steven S. Long, and many others.

Getting back to your question, my basic editorial rules were still in full effect each time I sat down to edit one of these stories: help the author make their tale the very best it can be. That’s pretty much my first and only rule, but for Champions, it went further than that, as I also backed up Marc in making sure that the stories stayed within the boundaries of his created universe. With such a talented, experienced group of authors, my editorial work wasn’t difficult at all; in fact, it was a joy. Everyone was eager to make sure their stories were the best they could be, and all were very comfortable discussing suggested edits and comments on their stories.

I was also the last author to write a story, as both Marc and I wanted to make sure that ours filled in places or parts of Aetaltis that hadn’t been covered by other authors. Of course, being the co-editor on the project made this part easy, as I got to see where everyone else had set their stories before tackling mine. Fortunately, the town of Thornwall (covered in incredible detail in the Aetaltis game supplement Heroes of Thornwall) was still available, and I used it as the setting for “True Monsters,” a story involving an orog (a huge, ogre-like creature that’s also a PC class in the world) and several of the townspeople’s children. It was a blast to write, and I think it holds up very well among everyone else’s wonderful stories.

What’s good about having a gaming background when writing fantasy fiction? And what are some pitfalls to avoid when thinking like a gamer?

I first met Marc through Jean Rabe, the previous organizer of the Writer’s Symposium, at Gen Con several years ago. He was a long-time gamer who was just starting to work on the business side of what would eventually become his company, Mechanical Muse. Of course, now he’s doing an amazing job of organizing and running the Symposium, and his company has been taking off as well.

In my opinion, the best thing about being a gamer and a fiction writer is the flexibility that roleplaying gives you to explore potential scenarios and outcomes in your story. Since you’ve already gotten experience playing characters that are (hopefully) different from yourself, it is much easier to take that experience and utilize it in creating characters and plots for your fiction.

The downside is that sometimes a game world or RPG scenario can bleed too much into whatever fiction you’re writing and actually become a constraint. If you’re having to bend over backwards to ensure that your plot makes sense due to how you think it should turn out (because that’s how you would have played the scenario out), or if you’re adhering too much to particular rules that you’ve created for your setting, and the world or story suffers as a result, that may be the time to step back from your writing and try to look at it more objectively. In the end, you may have to modify those restrictive rules that are hampering your story or find a different way for your protagonist to accomplish whatever they’re trying to do.

Cover by Mitchell Malloy

Cover by Mitchell Malloy

As an anthologist, what do you feel are the advantages (and otherwise) of sticking to a strict theme? With an anthology that’s linked only by setting, how do you choose the order of stories? Are you looking for rhythm? An interlocking of themes? Something else?

The main advantage of a themed anthology is that it points everyone in the same general direction; authors and readers alike. A good theme sets the mood for everyone—if you pick up an anthology of urban paranormal stories, you know in advance what you’re getting. Setting a collection of short fiction in a clearly defined setting such as Shadowrun or Aetaltis sets up some parameters without restricting the authors too much. With Champions, for instance, both the title and cover practically scream classic sword-and-sorcery fantasy—which is exactly what Marc was going for, of course.

Also, the lengths writers often go to create unique stories with their own creative spin is incredible. Every so often I get a writer who asks, “What have you gotten so far? I want to make sure I don’t inadvertently copy someone else’s idea?” My answer is always the same: “Don’t worry about it, just write the best story you can come up with.” Even when two authors happen to choose a similar theme, 9 times out of 10 their approaches to it are wildly different, so both stories can fit into the volume without concern that they might overshadow each other.

Once the stories were all in, then Marc and I sat down to figure out who was going where. Generally in a themed anthology, an author’s name is fairly important (both for status in the field as well as their potential audience), as well as the length of their story, as you typically don’t want to two longer pieces placed next to each other. Then there’s the rhythm of the stories themselves—some are quieter and more reflective, others are heart-in-your-throat nonstop thrills and action. Some contain sly humor or devastating emotion, others exult in the action and setting, featuring daring heroes pulling off incredible feats against impossible odds. And then some fall somewhere in between all of those. Sorting out who goes where is always one of the enjoyable challenges of assembling an anthology.

On the other side of the coin, when I had the chance to do an “unthemed” anthology called Recycled Pulp over at WMG Publishing with Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith as part of their Fiction River series, I thought it’d be fairly easy…but the reality was quite different.

The concept was relatively simple: I wanted to do a project that harkened back to the glory days of the pulp magazines, when stories were often written to order at an editor’s request, sometime with them supplying a title and the story written to order around it. I used an online pulp story title generator to create 250 titles like “The Spider Beyond the Stars” and “Beneath the Screaming Monolith,” total pulp stuff. The attendees of that year’s workshop selected three numbers at random, and those were the three titles they got. They then had to select one, and write a story using that title in any genre they wanted. The catch was that it couldn’t be a pulp story (hence the “recycled” part).

Well, I got some terrific stories, more than enough to fill the volume. But when it came time to actually put the book together, I realized I had kind of edited myself into a corner. I had to find some way to make all these disparate genres—from softboiled police procedural to urban fantasy to traditional fantasy to dystopian science fiction to even a Twilight Zone-kind of story—and figure out how to put them all together in a way that allowed each one to shine, but didn’t break the flow of the anthology as a whole. It wasn’t easy, but I persevered and came up with a table of contents that worked for me and, I hope, for the readers as well.

And that’s another thing I enjoy about editing anthologies—each one is different, every single time: different voices, different challenges. It’s never the same thing twice.

What are some current or recent non-prose fantasy stories (TV, comics, film, games, whatever) that you particularly admire? Is there a particular creator of fantasy fiction who’s done something new or distinctive to inspire your work or to change the way you view the work of others?

I haven’t had a lot of time to read recently (unfortunately) so I’m going to mention two television shows that might stretch the definition of fantasy, but which I still think both qualify, and then come back to one of my all-time favorite fantasy novel series.

For live-action television, my wife and I just finished watching the first season of Jessica Jones, and we were both blown away by the virtuoso storytelling, casting, and acting. The protagonist definitely has her own problems, including dealing with what is possibly the most dangerous villain I’ve come across in recent media. She does the best she can, but (along with her friends) makes mistakes and inadvertently causes a good deal of collateral damage, which the show actually deals with, instead of ignoring it or writing that incident or person out of the story entirely. I certainly hope the producers and writers can keep up that level of quality in the next season.

On the animated side, we also recently started watching Rick & Morty, which I would classify as falling into more of a science-fantasy cross-over. Again, the stories that Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland come up with, mixing out-of-this-world adventures (and danger and terror) with a B-story that often involved much more banal, everyday family life, and mashing all of that together into something that is quite simply unique in its take on family, relationships, growing up, love, aging, life, and well, just about everything. Beneath its madcap antics is a show that’s all about heart, and that’s the biggest selling point to me.

Finally, I want to give a shout out to a seminal series that affected me as a child, and was quite possibly the biggest influence on me as a writer, and that’s Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series. Instead of the vast scope and bombast of other fantasy series of the time, Alexander’s books felt more intimate, and on a smaller scale, even though they dealt with many of the same themes: honor, self-respect, heroism, friendship, fear, courage. They just seemed to effortlessly written, yet were so deep and moving. Apparently Disney is beginning pre-production on films of them (of course, they did the not-very-successful Black Cauldron animated film back in the 80s)—I hope they go live-action this time (and not muck around with the story too much); done right, those novels would make magnificent movies.

Back to Aetaltis, which I think of (in a good way) as a kitchen-sink setting—that is, one in which you can find a wide variety of subgenres within heroic fantasy—what qualities make the setting its own coherent entity? Another way of asking that is, what makes Aeltaltis distinct from other kitchen-sink settings like Golarion, the Forgotten Realms, Eberron, and the rest?

I completely agree with you regarding the term “kitchen-sink setting,” as it refers to Aetaltis.

I think the best RPG settings, particularly new ones, give players a combination of classic tropes they can really get behind, combined with something new that gives that particular world a different feel from everything else. Keith Baker’s Eberron setting did just that, using a backdrop of war, and adding a careful mix of technology into his world to create something very different from the standard fantasy settings.

In my opinion, one of the best qualities of Aetaltis is Marc’s careful attention to the world’s backstory, giving enough flavor for a reader/player to get a distinct sense of how this world came to be, which makes it feel both real for what he’s setting up in his game universe, yet distinct from other fantasy worlds. Even the hint of science fiction introduced with the gates, and the distinct new races, like the newardin, juxtaposed with the more classic fantasy races give the setting a different, fresh feel while still holding true to the best fantasy tropes.

The other interesting take is the continent’s slow recovery after a massive natural disaster, which has also served the double purpose of reintroducing evil back into the world as well. So the stakes are twofold—making sure that the various civilizations keep surviving and thriving while seeking to limit the damage that has been wrought by the Cataclysm, as well as mustering heroes and forces to battle the encroaching evil that threatened to overwhelm everything that is good in the land. All in all, it’s everything an RPGer would want to see in a game setting—but I may be a bit biased on that score.

 

Keep up with John’s latest work at his website.

Creative Colleagues: Paris Crenshaw

Paris Crenshaw

Paris Crenshaw

Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

Paris Crenshaw is one of the friends I first met at PaizoCon, back when I first wrote for Pathfinder Tales. I don’t think we ever discussed the coincidence, but Paris and I both grew up in Virginia, and we almost attended the same university.

When we met, Paris was already writing for Wayfinder in the precious little time he could find between his navy career and family obligations. Since then, he’s contributed to Champions of Corruption, Faiths & Philosophies, the Inner Sea NPC Codex, and other publications.

Now Paris has designed a five-chapter adventure sage for both Pathfinder and D&D. Trail of the Apprentice bridges a gap between introductory games, like the Pathfinder Beginner Box and D&D Starter Set, and the Pathfinder Adventure Paths and the D&D adventure hardcovers. Published by Legendary games, the series is aimed at younger and beginner players. It’s currently raising funds on Kickstarter, but since it’s already achieved its funding goal, the next three weeks are all about hitting those stretch goals.

Apart from simplified rules, what changes do you make to a roleplaying adventure to make it perfect for younger or novice players?

When I’m writing adventures for novice players, especially younger players, I focus on the structure of the story. I try to keep the story focused, with clear connections between events. Encounters need to flow logically from one to the next. An experienced gamer may criticize this approach as “railroading,” but a more linear adventure is helpful to new players. Games like D&D and Pathfinder are complex. There are a lot of moving parts, and many different components define a single character. When you’re still trying to figure out what things your character can do, having to figure out what your character should do adds another level of confusion. The sheer number of options can lead to paralysis and cause players to shy away from the game. For very low level adventures, I make it clear that certain locations are specifically designed to limit players’ choices. That way, they can focus on moving forward and figure out how their characters can face one challenge at a time. As they gain experience with the game, they can get more opportunities to make decisions that impact the direction the story takes.

Obviously, when working with younger players, content is also a consideration. Having grown out of wargames, tabletop RPGs have always had a tradition of fighting and combat, so I don’t want to try to remove that, but I do want to help keep things clear for players. I want to make sure that the player characters are portrayed as heroes and their enemies are clearly “bad guys.” I think it’s important that this “bad guy” status is based on actions, rather than just by nature of being a certain type of creature. The PCs need to be able to see that if they have to fight an enemy, it’s either because that enemy is trying to hurt them or because it’s doing something clearly very bad. As we get older, we can enjoy delving into the gray areas of morality, but that kind of thinking is challenging for younger players (admittedly, it’s challenging for many older ones, too). Trying to remove that ambiguity can be difficult, because I know that different players are going to have different values. I may not always hit the mark, but I hope I’m able to keep to a decent middle ground while still making things interesting.

What considerations do you keep in mind for the Game Master when designing these adventures? How much hand-holding is necessary? 

In terms of designing the module—the actual printed adventure—one of the things I decided to do was to place full stat blocks alongside each encounter. That stat block is slimmed down to present only the information the GM needs, but it’s on the page where the encounter happens. That way, the GM doesn’t have to go to a different book to find the information he needs about the creatures in that encounter. That’s a pretty significant difference from other modules. Usually, the goal is to provide as much story information as possible and word count is limited by the product’s format. Publishers often encourage writers to reference monsters or non-player characters who already have statistics in other books. Legendary Games let me try my own approach for Trail of the Apprentice, and I think it will help GMs be more comfortable with running the encounters. They can branch out to other sources later when they know the system better.

The other thing that designers can do when writing for new GMs is to rely on tropes. Modern media has really embraced much of geek culture, but gamers have always been the type of people who are exposed to a wide variety of material. We often try to stay away from familiar stories or concepts because we’re trying to offer our players something new and different. That’s great for players who’ve “seen it all,” but when you’re new to the game, especially if you’re very young, it’s actually better to rely on what’s familiar. The players can help you tell the story if they have a sense of how it’s supposed to go. GMs may be afraid that players will think they’re just copying a favorite book or movie, but the truth is that many people enjoy RPGs because they get a chance to be a part of their favorite stories. Embrace that concept.

With a willingness to borrow from tropes or familiar storylines, GMs don’t have to worry so much about forgetting where they’re supposed to go next. As an author, I know you’ve created intricate and original plots, and I’m willing to bet that you have to keep notes to make sure you stay on track. I’m also willing to bet that you have to refer to those notes and revise them as your characters evolve through the story. If it’s challenging to stay on track when you’re a writer who controls all the characters, it’s even more difficult for a GM who has a group of players all contributing their own characters’ actions. It takes a long time to learn how to handle that kind of complexity. By starting with something familiar, everyone can have a good time while learning the game together.

Cover by Beatrice Pelagatti

Cover by Beatrice Pelagatti

In both rules and settings, there’s a spectrum between generic and specific. How generic do you feel an adventure should be to appeal to the broadest audience without losing a sense of setting as character?

While I love world building, I have to remind myself that stories really are more about the characters than about the setting. A good adventure should have a story that brings out the PCs, no matter where it’s set, but many details that influence characters’ decisions are derived from the setting. It’s also true that many things that make an adventure interesting are the little details, which are usually derived from some kind of history or background. It’s hard to create those interesting details for a specific setting. On the other hand, if you base the whole adventure on something that is unique to one setting, it can be difficult to use that adventure somewhere else.

A good example of the latter situation is the The Whispering Cairn, the first part of Paizo’s second adventure path, Age of Worms, in Dungeon magazine. I loved that adventure path, but it was set in Greyhawk, and I’d always been partial to the Forgotten Realms. Without going into spoilers, a specific, legendary magic item features in that adventure. The item just doesn’t exist in the Realms. So, in order to make it fit, I had to come up with a similar item and create a whole new history. I actually posted that stuff on the Paizo message board. It was fun to create, but it took a lot of time and energy. Busy GMs don’t usually have the luxury of spending so much time on that kind of conversion.

Designers can make things easier by placing the adventures in areas that have analogues. Create situations where it isn’t too difficult to change some proper nouns and rearrange locations so that people can use the story in whatever setting the group it using. The Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, and even Golarion all have areas that are fairly close in terms of culture and theme. They have differences that make them unique but are similar enough that you can adapt modules for use in the setting of your choice. For example, if you’re a Golarion fan, it wouldn’t be at all difficult to play the Trail of the Apprentice campaign in that world’s River Kingdoms region.

Especially in my TSR and WotC days, I met a lot of military gamers. As a Naval officer, what do you think is the particular appeal of games like D&D and Pathfinder to military personnel?

My experience is through the lens of an officer, so it’s perhaps a little different. After college, my gaming took a precipitous plunge, because officers just didn’t admit that they were gamers. I had one or two friends who I knew were gamers, but we were scattered around the world. The rules against socializing with junior personnel to prevent fraternization made it unwise to get a group of sailors together. And ashore, as a Naval officer, building a gaming group with civilians was tough, because we would get underway for weeks at a time, making it even more difficult to keep a campaign going. It wasn’t until later in my career, around 2000 when I was at Monterey, that I met a bunch of fellow officers who were also gamers and we got a group going. Since then, I’ve managed to keep up with gaming, either via play-by-post games, online tools like d20Pro, or more recently, via a regular in-person game with friends I’ve made in San Diego. Now that I’m in my forties, I’m meeting lots of officers and senior enlisted folks my age who are avid gamers. It makes me wish I’d been more open about my geeky hobby when I was younger.

Regardless, tabletop gaming is much more visible and common among the junior enlisted personnel. For some reason, it’s more accepted among 18 or 19 year olds right out of high school than it is in 22 year-olds right out of college. I think the enlisted folks who pass the time with RPGs appreciate that it’s a social game that has some strategy and tactical elements. During long deployments, sailors and soldiers are going to see their comrades every day and get into set routines. For people who enjoy gaming, it can be a great opportunity to really make progress in a campaign. Another plus is that, unlike console or PC games, you don’t need electricity to play. There are tons of software-based tools to help manage campaigns, and most folks can take laptops with them on deployment, these days, but they aren’t necessary. Dice, paper, pencils, and some rulebooks are really all you need. Maybe a little more involved than a deck of cards, but still a great option for passing the time between watches and drills.

What are some of the classic roleplaying modules that influence your design sensibility? And what are a few “modern classics” gamers should seek out?

I didn’t really start playing D&D regularly until 2nd Edition, so I missed many of the true “classics.” But I did get to enjoy many early modules. I clearly remember that sessions from the module Wildspace, the Legend of Spelljammer box set, and the Ravenloft module Feast of Goblyns taught me a lot about dealing with players who weren’t interested in the module’s storyline. That probably wasn’t the fault of the modules, per se, but learning when the players just aren’t interested in what’s going on in an adventure is a skill that a good GM needs to develop. So is knowing that you shouldn’t try to argue too much about physics when you’re playing in a fantasy space setting where entire solar systems are encased in massive crystal bubbles.

Trying to run the Time of Troubles series and playing in the Curse of the Azure Bonds for the Forgotten Realms taught me how forcing the player characters to stick too closely to the events in novels can ruin the fun for everyone. Those modules were fun to read, but the Time of Troubles, in particular, cast the player characters in supporting roles for the story’s main characters. That should never be the case. Things can be going on in the background and the heroes may not be able to influence them, but the players should be the ones making a real impact on the world.

As for “modern classics”? That’s tough. There are so many great adventures being published these days. I love Paizo’s adventure paths. I’ve already mentioned The Whispering Cairn from Dungeon #124, and I think that’s probably one of the best. I’ve been a player in the Kingmaker story and in Legacy of Fire, and I enjoy both of them. Kingmaker in particular puts the player characters in the center of the story and allows the players to shape how that story moves along. However, it was designed as a sandbox, and I don’t think it’s the best choice for new players and GMs because there are so many choices and it takes a skilled GM to keep things “on track” toward the encounters in the later adventures. I also think that the adventures set in Darkmoon Vale for the Pathfinder setting are great: Hollow’s Last Hope, Crown of the Kobold King, Revenge of the Kobold King, and Hungry Are the Dead make up a fantastic series with cool dungeons and other adventure sites and a backdrop that feels like an old Western town. Kind of like living in Deadwood or Lahood (from Pale Rider).

You can keep tabs on Paris on Facebook. And don’t forget to check out the Trail of the Apprentice Kickstarter campaign. 

 

Creative Colleagues Roundtable: Horror Fiction

Spooky cover by Dan Scott

Spooky cover by Dan Scott

In the usual Creative Colleagues interviews, I drop five questions on a person involved in stories: writers, illustrators, musicians, nerf herders—you know the type. Yet sometimes I have just one or two questions, and I want a bunch of opinions.

That includes your opinions, so I hope you’ll comment.

Here’s a little incentive: After two weeks, I’ll randomly pick the names of up to six commentators (fewer, if fewer than six people participate). The chosen few will receive a code for their choice of one of the following Pathfinder Tales novels via audible.com: Prince of Wolves, Master of Devils, Queen of Thorns, King of Chaos, Lord of Runes, or Elaine Cunningham’s Winter Witch (to which I contributed the back half).

Because ghost stories were one of my first “fandoms,” I often include a little Gothic supernatural in my work, notably in Prince of Wolves. And so for the spooky month of October, I posed a couple of horror fiction questions to some of my eerier colleagues.

Of the many sub-genres of horror fiction, which do you find the most appealing?

David Annandale: The sub-genre I find most appealing at the moment is the ghost story. Roald Dahl said something to the effect that this is one of the most difficult forms of fiction to do well, and I think he’s not far wrong. The ghost story has a fair bit in common with the mystery but has the added challenge of providing a solution that is not just satisfying but—rather than leading to comfort and resolution—makes things even more frightening. I realize this is an oversimplification of both forms, but it does summarize the qualities of my favorite ghost stories. These are tales that linger in the mind, becoming more disturbing the more one thinks about them.

For my money, one of the most perfect of all ghost stories is Edith Wharton’s “Afterward.” The premise is simple—a house haunted by a ghost you do not realize you have seen until long afterward—but there is nothing simplistic in the way Wharton plays out all the awful implications of that idea. The first time I read the story, I thought it was atmospheric, but I was a little disappointed in the payoff. A long time after, I began to understand exactly what had gone on, and it became really creepy. In other words, it was a story that embodied its own premise.

In a way, the same is true of Peter Straub’s terrifying Ghost Story. Here is a tale where the being we encounter is the origin of all ghost tales, and the novel itself is like a compendium of them all while still remaining a unified whole. It is as big and booming a story as Wharton’s is quiet and subtle, but no less layered a masterpiece. So the ghost story can range in tone from the whisper to the scream. As hard as it is to do right, it’s devastating when everything comes together.

Stephen D. Sullivan: I find two sub-genres in the horror/monster area most appealing. One is the classic Gothic Horror setting, which can range from the past right into the present, because it’s more about the atmosphere than the period. My Frost Harrow stories, for instance, are set in the present but can arc into the past.

I’m also way more about the monsters—ghosts, werewolves, undead, etc. or even Cthulhu—than I am about slasher-type fiction. When I wrote my novelization of White Zombie, I didn’t try to jazz it up with too much sex or gore and such; I kept it within the time frame when the movie was made and just hinted a little more strongly at some of the weird subtexts they had in the film. When finally I start working on my Cushing Horrors stories, they’ll probably be more similar to WZ and Universal’s movies—classic monster movie stuff.

My Frost works, conversely, are very modern in their outlook and can have more sex and violence. My two Manos novelizations run the gamut. Manos: The Hands of Fate has the kinky subtext of the film but plays for the comedy and doesn’t delve any deeper. In Manos: Talons of Fate (coming soon), I get to dig into the dark side and bring it out for readers to “see.” In the end, either way I go on the gothic/classic genre, a lot of it is about the monsters for me. Give me Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, Jr., or even The Master, any day!

The other sub-genre I’m interested in is Giant Monsters. I’ve had a great time playing with that in Daikaiju Attack and shorter stories, like “Kaiju vs. Cthulhu” and “Kaiju vs. Kongu.” I have the advantage of being able to play my whole mythos out in advance, something the filmmakers never really did.

But, again, monsters. Give me monsters!

Wendy Wagner: I am drawn back again and again to the ghost story, which gets under my skin the way other forms of horror rarely do. Ghost stories have a wonderful sense of place that is utterly compelling. Moreover, they are often framed around a current of unhappiness that is so strong it has left scars on the surface of reality. What a terrible, powerful idea: that human misery can imprint itself on the world and keep inflicting itself on people who have no connection to the original trauma. A ghost forces the characters in the story to look into darkness. It’s horrible. It’s sad. I’m a determined materialist, but I would not want to live in a haunted house, no matter how fascinated I am by the notion.

Eddy Webb: I think ghost stories endure the longest. In some ways, vampire stories are a version of ghost stories, because they both relate to the human fascination with death (and indeed, some older ghost stories present the dead as if they were tangible). The idea that people can somehow exist beyond death and still affect this world is both appealing and terrifying, and that’s why so many versions of the undead exist in horror fiction. Death is, as Shakespeare put it, “the undiscovered country,” although horror allows us a chance to glimpse its horizons for a short time.

Movies and radio excel at the “Lewton bus,” or what these days we call the jump scare. What special form of fear can writing produce that theatrical performance generally can’t?

Stephen D. Sullivan: One of the strongest types of fear that writing can invoke is that of building fear or existential dread—the type of thing that plays on your mind rather than something that’s physically revolting or startling.

H.P. Lovecraft was the master of this technique, and that’s one of the reasons his works are so admired to this day. How many times reading an HPL story did you want to say to the protagonist: Stop! Don’t go any further! You won’t like what you find! And yet, both the lead character in the story and we, as readers, stumble blindly forward, only to be cast into a black pit of fear and despair at the story’s end.

Whew! Thank God that didn’t happen to me! we come away thinking. And then we read another one.

As authors, we can build that suspense throughout a story to an extent that other productions can’t. Writing is communicating mind-to-mind, after all. Something bad is going to happen—but what, when, and to whom? And when it finally does happen, we can get a really strong emotional reaction.

Wendy Wagner: Some other great examples of mounting dread in short fiction is in Caitlín R. Kiernan’s story “Rats Live on No Evil Star,” where an odd man’s Fortean ramblings slowly begin to resolve into something we readers can see and understand, and “Sight Unseen,” by Joel Lane, a story about a man tidying up his dead father’s estate and trying to cope with his uncomfortable memories of childhood. That story builds to a really uncomfortable crescendo that left me with goose bumps.

Eddy Webb: Writing allows for a sudden but natural shift from physical horror to psychological horror in a way that is trickier for visual media to do. It’s certainly possible, and some classic horror films have done so to great effect, but writing is much more flexible in that regard. Here’s an example from my upcoming short story, “Blood on the Walls,” that illustrates that point (although I did cut part of the quote, as it contains a spoiler). Notice how, in a short space, the narrative goes from action to an examination of a character’s mental state and back to action.

“I need to calibrate the electric pentacle to counteract her vibrations!” I said. I realized I was shouting as the dripping sound had become louder, so loud that it drowned out all other noises in the room. “Stay still, Mr. Davidson! Don’t touch the pentacle!”

But my words were in vain. Here is a father, stricken in grief and broken by war. His mind survived only because he believed he could provide a better life for his surviving daughter  He crawled along the floor, his hands so damaged that he didn’t even feel the energy flowing through the wires as he tore them up.

This Month’s Roundtable

David Annandale

David Annandale write fiction in a variety of genres: SF/Fantasy, horror, thrillers. He writes non-fiction about film and video games and teaches courses on film, games, literature and creative writing. www.davidannandale.com.

Steve SullivanStephen D. Sullivan has been a monster kid all his life and a professional one since 1980, when he joined the creative team for Dungeons & Dragons. Steve is a frequent guest on Monster Kid Radio. His recent books include Daikaiju Attack, White Zombie, and Manos: The Hands of Fate. www.stephendsullivan.com.

Wendy N. WagnerWendy N. Wagner is a Hugo award-winning editor whose latest work is the Queers Destroy Horror! special issue of Nightmare Magazine. She is also the author of close to three dozen short stories and the novel Skinwalkers, a Pathfinder Tales adventure. Her website is winniewoohoo.com.

Eddy Webb

Eddy Webb is a writer, designer, producer, and consultant for video games and RPGs. His career spans over a decade, and even includes some awards. His story “Blood on the Walls” will appear in Ghosts in the Cogs by Broken Eye Books. There’s more of his ramblings at eddyfate.com.

 

If you’re an opinionated writer, artist, or other story creator and would like to participate in a future Creative Colleagues Roundtable, drop me a line.

 

Creative Colleagues: Chadwick Ginther

Chadwick Ginther, photo by Rachel Himelblau

Chadwick Ginther, photo by Rachel Himelblau

Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

If memory serves, I first met Chadwick Ginther at the When Words Collide festival in Calgary, where we chatted in the atrium bar. It’s possible we bumped into each other at World Fantasy or Pure Speculation before that, and we’ve run into each other at cons and readings ever since.

You meet a lot of folks who are “working on a novel” at conventions, but Chadwick’s Thunder Road soon materialized, grew with the sequel Tombstone Blues, and concludes this month with Too Far Gone.

  1. Since we first met, you’ve published your first book and two sequels, completing a trilogy. How has your writing life changed in that time? Do you outline differently (or at all)? Is your daily routine evolving?

Well I’m still working a day job so that part, hasn’t changed. I did, however, change day jobs which forced a complete change in my daily writing routine. Replacing a five minute walk to work with a forty-five minute bus ride definitely left me scavenging for more writing time. I wrote books one and two of the Thunder Road trilogy back to back, and then waited to draft book three until I’d sold the series, so in the intervening couple of years, being published had also brought with it more of a need for a social media presence, so I found the business side of writing also eating into my writing time.

Too Far Gone was written (at least in first draft) longhand in notebooks during my bus rides to and from work, and on my coffee and lunch breaks. There was no conscious decision to avoid the keyboard, but that was how the book was coming out, and so I just rolled with it. Transcribing also gave me a free editing pass!

My daily routine is still evolving even though the new day job is over two years old at this point. Lately I’d found that coffee and lunch break writing was getting less and less words on the page, so I’ve been dragging myself away from bed an hour or so early for dedicated writing time before I start work.

The closest I usually come to outlining is to make a soundtrack for the story consisting of twenty or so songs that capture how I want the book to feel. With Too Far Gone, I did an outline for my second draft, as the first draft was written in very short spurts of between 250-1000 words at time, and in no particular order. I wrote out every scene on index cards and then tried to assemble them into a story after the fact, but it’s not my usual method.

2. Other than your living there, that compelled you to combine Norse mythology with the prairies (and oil fields)? What made them a perfect match?

I grew up reading Norse mythology. D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myth was a hugely formative book for me. As was TSR’s Legends & Lore resource for Dungeons and Dragons. Those books solidified a love of all mythology, but the Norse stories in particular. Even when I wasn’t writing stories directly influenced by Norse myth, elements of it would creep in around the edges. So when I decided I wanted to write a very Norse story, I went looking for how it could work in Manitoba—I couldn’t afford a trip to any of the Nordic countries, and I wanted it to take place in our world, not an invented one.

Manitoba has a huge Icelandic community, and an awareness of that was definitely in the back of my brain when I sat down and started to write Thunder Road–the town Gimli’s name comes right out of mythology, but the more research I did, the more such connections I found. There is a rural municipality of Bifrost in Manitoba, for example. Added in with the local flavor were sasquatch sightings that could be my giants, lake serpent sightings that could be my dragon (or Jormungandur, the Midgard Serpent) and Winnipeg’s notoriously “haunted” downtown.

The Alberta connections were a little murkier, but no less important. I knew I wanted my protagonist to be an outsider. It would make it more fun to comment on local attractions through new eyes. My earliest imaginings all had a blue-collar protagonist, because I love combining the magical and the mundane, and I thought there’d be interesting conflict in a very practical, down-to-earth person getting thrown into huge world shaking events. At the time, I had a friend who was working in Northern Alberta and whenever we got together he’d share some stories of his time up north, so Alberta became my go to place to give Ted Callan a home.

In my relatively limited travels at the time, I had been to Edmonton, and had really enjoyed my time there. I liked the feel of the city. It also had the added bonus that I had some friends living there who could help me with any details that I’d need. Alberta had some strong Icelandic connections of its own, which I discovered as I started to do my research for book three, so that was a happy coincidence.

Cover by Jamis Paulson

Cover by Jamis Paulson

3. Many authors have reinterpreted the Nordic gods in recent decades (notably Neil Gaiman in The Sandman and the various writers of the Marvel comics and movies). For those who haven’t seen your books yet, what’s your special take on the characters? What makes your Nordic gods your Nordic gods?

There are so many variations on the Nordic stories depending on your source material. I chose to hew as closely as possible to the Icelandic sagas, especially given the Norse connection to my setting. I used to collect Thor comics, and I loved Walt Simonson’s take on the character and the Nine Worlds, but when I started drafting the first two books, there was no inkling that we would ever see a Thor movie. I think Iron Man had been released, but I never would’ve dreamed that the Marvel Cinematic Universe would’ve become as sprawling and as awesome as it is now. Thor has faced Ragnarök probably three or more times in the comics (and has another time coming up in the movies, if the title of his third film has anything to say about it) and while I enjoyed those stories, I loved what came after. I knew the story of Ragnarök, so whatever the writers chose to do after, I had no inkling of where the tales might lead, and I always found the different takes fascinating.

That’s why I chose to set my books in a post-Ragnarök world that looks a lot like our world, so most of the gods, Thor, Odin, Freyr, etc. are dead. There are remnants of magic and monsters lurking about (especially in Canada, where we’ve got the room to hide them) held back only by the remnants of the ancient fence Odin built around Midgard (Earth). But no fence is perfect, and once you’re exposed to magic, you become a part of the Nine Worlds. Usually you don’t live too long after that and so the secret world of magic and monsters stays mostly secret. In setting the books post-Ragnarök, all of the stories the fan of Norse myth already knows have happened. I’m not changing or taking away anything that they loved, but hopefully given them something different but of a similar flavor.

My big cheat was keeping Loki alive, but Loki’s a big cheat himself, and I figured if there was anyone who could wriggle off the hook of his doom, it would be him.

4. Music and song titles are obviously a big inspiration on your story. How much of that is likely to carry over into other novels by you? And are these the songs you’re listening to while writing?

Music is a huge inspiration to me, even if I’ve got a terrible singing voice, and never got much past four chord blues progressions while trying to learn to play guitar. I always listen to music while I write. The chapter titles are necessarily what is on the story soundtrack I listen to while I write the book, but many of them are. I think there will always be nods to music I like in my fiction, but it might not be as overt as it was in the Thunder Road Trilogy.

5. On that note, what is the Awesome Mix Tape for the trilogy?

  1. “When the Levee Breaks”—Led Zeppelin
  2. “Apocalyptic Modified Blues”—Corb Lund
  3. “Little Miss Fortune”—The Now Time Delegation
  4. “Six-Sixty-Six”—Frank Black and the Catholics
  5. “There She Goes, My Beautiful World”—Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
  6. “If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)”—AC/DC
  7. “Hell’s Bells—AC/DC
  8. “Shake the World”—Motorhead
  9. “Roughest Neck Around”—Corb Lund
  10. “Hex”—Neko Case
  11. “Comin’ Home”—Murder By Death
  12. “Great Expectations”—The Gaslight Anthem
  13. “Immigrant Song”—Led Zeppelin
  14. “Earth Died Screaming”—Tom Waits
  15. “The Red Headed Stranger”—Willie Nelson

Keep tabs on Chadwick Ginther at his website.

Creative Colleagues: The Next Generation

While I’ll continue to post the occasional Creative Colleagues blog focusing on one subject, I’ll soon add a variation that asks fewer questions to more writers, including those I’ve not yet met.

Thus, even if we don’t know each other well but you’re a writer with whom I’m connected on social media, and you’d be interested in participating in an occasional roundtable interview, please send me a message with your email.

And if you’re not a writer but you enjoy these blogs, please comment with your requests for questions, general topics, or writers you’d like to see included in these roundtables.

Look for the first Creative Colleagues Roundtable on October 28.

 

Creative Colleagues: Daniel Hodges

Daniel Hodges

Daniel Hodges

Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

Sometimes I lament the distance between home and the game conventions I attended so regularly in the 90s. When I worked at TSR and Wizards of the Coast, I visited half a dozen cons annually. I got spoiled into thinking conventions always involved hundreds if not thousands of people and included panels and a vast exhibit hall. Yet big conventions don’t spontaneously appear; they grow out of little ones.

So I signed up to play a couple of games at one of our little local events, IntrigueCon. The name of the man responding to my email looked familiar, so I poked about and discovered he produces a podcast called Penny Red (currently on hiatus, but with an enormous selection of past episodes). He has also designed two roleplaying games, Victoria and Faith, with two more under development, Nimbus and Das Sonenrad, which explore the costs of selflessness over self-preservation during wartime.

Originally from New Zealand, Daniel teaches high school here in Edmonton. We won’t actually meet until the convention, but I couldn’t resist asking him a few questions in hopes that his replies will entice some of you to join us at IntrigueCon.

1. Give us a quick origin story for Intriguecon, including its early challenges and triumphs.

I can’t claim to be the only one behind the wheel of IntrigueCon. Clint, Rob, and another Daniel (he would claim to be the original Daniel), are really co-founders. We’ve gamed together for about seven years, and one evening it just occurred to me that we could probably run a con for ourselves. I’d been to lots of cons and thought, with a population of about a million folks, there was no reason we couldn’t have one here.

We got it off the ground only a couple of months after having the idea, with only the notion that we could bring some folks together who liked roleplaying and that we didn’t want to lose a lot of money. We achieved half of those goals.

Fortunately we did a better job in the second year and now moving into the third year we’ve actually gone from two to three days. We’re already looking to next year and eyeing up larger venues and a more diverse schedule.

The challenges for something like this are, mostly, only what you make them. I think the key is to start tiny, and build. It’s sometimes hard to not to lose sight of the fact that GenCon is a long term goal not a template.

One serious hurdle is reaching folks. With the internet being where the majority of books are bought and groups being fairly insular there’s not really a nexus you can use. Word of mouth is your best friend, that and social media.

2. What’s a good mix of roleplaying games for a convention, in your opinion?

I think the key is to have recognizable titles from a broad cross-section. You’d be making a statement if you didn’t include Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder among your games. Part of running a con is offering attendees the opportunity to try something new but not forcing them to. It’s their leisure time.

That said, Sean Nittner’s Big Bad Con in Oakland is my favorite con, and you’d have to look hard to find those games on the schedule.

3. As a game designer, what do you learn from convention play that you don’t from your home sessions?

Whether your game does what you hope it will. An established group will have all kinds of shorthand and assumptions it’s sometimes hard to factor out. Playing with strangers makes you fill in all the gaps, and sometimes that’s what it takes to realize just how big those gaps are.

Intriguing gamers

Intriguing gamers

4. Tell us about your best or most unusual convention game session as a player or GM. Or a disastrous one!

I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of great experiences. My best game was a session of Witch the Road to Lindisfarne, and years later I’m still chasing that dragon.

Because game enjoyment is so subjective I don’t really have a worst experience because of a game. Worst people though are a little easier to identify.

I once played with a man who’d bought his daughter and wife with him to the table. They were “players,” but not really. He told them their ideas were wrong and really early on began playing their characters for them. It was heartbreaking to see the daughter so excited to play and then not being permitted to. The rest of us were pretty uncomfortable.

I couldn’t sit by and watch it but confronting him might have caused him to make them all to get up and walk away from the table.  So, I had my character call the police and “accidentally” cause his character and mine to be arrested. The GM was the real MVP though because, first of all, they played along and arrested us, but then proceeded to stifle everything he said after that with “You’re not there. You can’t say anything.” I hope it made a difference for his wife and daughter.

5. What is the most challenging aspect of a character for someone to play, especially in a 4-hour convention slot? And what tips would you offer to overcome that challenge?

In a convention game I feel like it’s the GM’s job to make the players feel like they’re being those things that their character is good at. A little reframing, a few hints, and little positive reinforcement goes a long way. It’s also important to gain trust and a good way to do this is to positively spin failure. For example a player that’s not naturally charismatic but playing someone who is could have their failures occur because of things beyond their control. For example, “The reporter reaches for their notepad and is just about to write down the number of the dead guy’s wife for you when they get a call. The reporter turns away to answer it and, before you know it, has hopped in the car and driven off down the road. You’re going to have to get the number another way.”

For players I’d just say give it a go, give the GM the chance to help you out. For other players I’d say, if you can see what the other characters are good at try to feed each other some spotlight in the scenes. Be a cheering squad not just a group of folks waiting for their turn to talk.

If you’re a power gamer that’s okay. Some people are that way because in their personal life they may lack any real power. Catering to this is being a good GM. What’s not okay, if you’re a power gamer, is not allowing other people some spotlight. That’s not being a selfish power gamer that’s being a selfish person.

 

If you’re within range of Edmonton, come join us at IntrigueCon. It’s a paltry $20 for the entire weekend, and I’m going to need someone to comfort me during “The Plantation” on Saturday evening.