Category Archives: World-building

Mashing Up the Wild West

If you’re of a certain age in the U.S., you were raised with Westerns. John Ford and Sergio Leone filled cinemas and TV screens with John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, the dust of cattle drives, the thunder of cavalry, guns, and the war whoops of Indians. By the time of my childhood, Western films were in their declining years, covering ground so well-trodden the genre itself had become cliché, a collection of easily recognizable and increasingly tired tropes.

However, the genre never quite made it to the grave. Since the Western film’s heyday, we’ve been graced with some spectacularly good fare: Tombstone, Unforgiven, Tarantino’s Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, the remake of True Grit, the HBO series Deadwood, and Dances with Wolves.

The things that these examples do exceedingly well, and I would submit to you, the reason they’re so damn good, is that they take the tropes and twist them. Unforgiven puts an unforgettable twist on the Hired Gunfighter. Tarantino’s characters are nearly all recognizable archetypes—except they’ve been subverted or twisted in unexpected ways. The Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit takes Charles Portis’ brilliant novel and puts little Maddie Ross squarely back in the protagonist’s seat. Deadwood so brims with fascinating characters, crackling dialogue, and Shakespearean tragedy that its cancellation after only three seasons is one of the great travesties of modern television. Dances with Wolves, with its sweeping grandeur, epic depth, and visionary cinematography, is credited with revitalizing the Western film, and it does so by turning the tables on the Indian Wars. Without this film, none of the others might ever have been made.

But just how far can you twist the tropes? Can you have a science-fiction Western? A horror Western? A fantasy Western? Absolutely. Mix in any of these ingredients and you have what has come to be called The Weird Western.

The earliest sci-fi western mash-up that comes to mind is Westworld, complete with android gunfighters. Another notable is Back to the Future Part III, which nowadays we might call a little steampunk. The Wild West is a favorite milieu for steampunk authors, forming their own sub-genre of Western mash-up, including the Fictorians’ own Quincy J. Allen. Are there other SF-Western examples? Sure, but we won’t talk about Cowboys and Aliens.

Horror is a spice that mashes up tastily with Western stories. The Old West is replete with ghost tales and Native American mysticism. Murder, injustice, and brutality abound, all fodder for stories of the unquiet dead. Haunted trains, phantom stage coaches, vengeful medicine men, ancient knowledge from the dark depths of human history… are your creative juices flowing yet?

So the first step to a good mash-up is to recognize the tropes. You have to understand the nuts and bolts of a genre and how they fit together into the moving parts of the story. Throw in the things you love, the things you want to write about. A sprinkle of vampire saliva, a touch of decomposing zombie, a love story between a man and his raw meat, an angry deceased mother-in-law.

Twist and subvert the tropes into interesting new shapes. Take the Town Marshal archetype and do something with him you’ve never seen before, something interesting, something fun, something unexpected. In Death Wind, we made the Town Marshall an old man, too stubborn and grumpy to admit he’s forty years past his prime.

This kind of subversion is not new. Even in the 19th Century, the Western genre had become staid and cliché. The profusion of dime novels and penny dreadfuls had already created the tropes and archetypes we know today. In 1898 Stephen Crane, author of the Red Badge of Courage, wrote a brilliant subversion of the Western in his short story “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” in which he plays with tropes like the Town Drunk, Town Marshal, and The Shootout with great insight and cleverness. The key to any good mash-up is play. Jam things together to see what works, what sounds fun.

A few years back, my friend Jim Pinto and I decided to collaborate on a screenplay. We wanted to do something neither of us had ever seen before, so we decided to mash up two genres we loved: horror and Westerns. But how to make it different from other notable horror Westerns around, such as The Burrowers and Ravenous? We threw in another ingredient we both loved: the Cthulhu Mythos of H.P. Lovecraft. And that’s when the fun really began. We were in undiscovered territory. Throwing together a collection of characters under-represented in Western fiction and film, we stirred them together into a juicy stew of crisscrossing conflicts and ended up with Death Wind, a screenplay that placed highly in several screenwriting contests, including Second Place at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival Cthulhu Con in L.A. and Grand Prize at the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose in 2012.

After this success, it was a no-brainer to adapt the script into a novel. Death Wind will make its literary debut at Dragon Con 2016, published by WordFire Press.

About the Author: Travis Heermann

Heermann-6Spirit_cover_smallTravis Heermann’s latest novel Spirit of the Ronin, was published in June, 2015.

Freelance writer, novelist, award-winning screenwriter, editor, poker player, poet, biker, he is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and the author of Death Wind (co-authored with Jim Pinto), The Ronin Trilogy, The Wild Boys, and Rogues of the Black Fury, plus short fiction pieces in anthologies and magazines such as Apex Magazine, Perihelion SF, Fiction River, Historical Lovecraft, and Cemetery Dance’s Shivers VII. As a freelance writer, he has produced a metric ton of role-playing game work both in print and online, including content for the Firefly Roleplaying Game, Legend of Five Rings, d20 System, and EVE Online.

He recently returned to the U.S. from New Zealand with a couple of lovely ladies and toting more Middle Earth souvenirs than is reasonable.

You can find him on…

Twitter
Facebook
Wattpad
Goodreads
Blog
Website


Descriptive Genre Novels

Back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, novels were suddenly available to the general public at greatly reduced cost. The paper wasn’t always the best quality and plagiarism was rampant between different countries — sometimes even between regions or states. People didn’t travel much and there was no Internet to bring rich, colorful multimedia presentations to someone’s eye at a whim.

Literature was their window to the world and beyond. The descriptions and eloquent language had to give the reader an understanding of places they’d never been to and most likely would never actually see. In a way, the genre novels were a combination of travel books combined with a fascinating tale.

Marie CorelliTake, for example, the best-selling author Marie Corelli. She was read by the masses more than HG Wells, Edgar Allen Poe, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — combined. In her book, Vendetta, she introduces the Italian landscape with intricate detail and flowing prose. Everything is richly described that let the readers “see” through the text. Colors, sounds, smells — all were documented to bring the landscape to life.

This method of novel-writing remained active and at the top of the best-sellers list until the 1980s. James Michener’s doorstopper novels included when the Earth was forming from dust up until the actual story took off. This detailed understanding of the environment was just as important to his novels because the landscape was an important character. Alaska, one of his last novels, explained volumes of how life was like in the frozen, snowy wastelands. Without that understanding, the story would be missing something important for the reader to incorporate in their thinking.

James A. Michener's Post-1980’s, the writing landscape changed. People had less time to spend on reading and publishers pushed for stories that started when the action began. Michener and James Clavell would have a tough time getting published these days without their extensive bookselling record.

One of the reasons for this sea change can be blamed on the Internet. Instead of having an author interpret and describe an exotic location, people can fire up their favorite search engine and watch travel videos and see pictures of daily life in far-off lands. We no longer need the words. For some genres, this is a sad thing.

With the hustle-and-bustle of daily living, coupled with the constant barrage of time-absorbing activities as far away as the cell phone in your pocket, nobody has the time for a beautifully written novel. They want to jump in, read the good parts, and jump out. The older readers are the ones who miss the prose the most.

Probably the one spot where this is less apparent is the speculative fiction markets. Science fiction and fantasy are based in places beyond our experience, so the author still has to do some worldbuilding. The details, alas, are typically lacking because the publishers want the action and not the description. Sometimes it is a good thing to take a break after a wild chase and a fierce battle to rest — both the characters and the reader — by delving into some more history or landscape description. At least, it’s something I miss these days.


 

About the Author:DeMarco_Web-5963

Guy Anthony De Marco is a disabled US Navy veteran speculative fiction author; a Graphic Novel Bram Stoker Award® nominee; winner of the HWA Silver Hammer Award; a prolific short story and flash fiction crafter; a novelist; an invisible man with superhero powers; a game writer (Sojourner Tales modules, Interface Zero 2.0 core team, third-party D&D modules); and a coffee addict. One of these is false.
A writer since 1977, Guy is a member of the following organizations: SFWA, WWA, SFPA, IAMTW, ASCAP, RMFW, NCW, HWA. He hopes to collect the rest of the letters of the alphabet one day. Additional information can be found at Wikipedia and GuyAnthonyDeMarco.com.

The Genius of Mistborn

mistborn___4_covers_in_1_artwork_by_dominikbroniek-d7et2qp

Generic-Les-Mis-website-news-icon3While I was working with Brandon Sanders at Salt Lake Comic Con a couple years ago, a fan asked him what his favorite book was.

Les Miserables,” he shot back without hesitation.

Mine too. I read the book in high school a couple times and a couple times since. Victor Hugo was a genius.

Now I had heard of Brandon Sanderson, but admittedly had never read any of his stories, but that comment drew me to his work.

I started with the Stormlight Archive then moved to the Reckoners series. And then, while going through Stormlight withdrawals I delved into Mistborn.

The story takes place in a fantasy world with a unique magic system. I like fantasy.

The curtains open on this fantasy stage to a criminal outfit running a con. Now, I like fantasy, but I love cons and heists. I’m hooked.


mistborn-covers

Soon this becomes less about conning the nobility and more about fueling revolution. I start to notice the intertwined reference to a significant piece of history—the French Revolution. I love history. And coincidently this event also surrounds the story in Les Miserables.

There’s more. Religious philosophy and political rhetoric mixed along with military stratagem. It’s a fascinating read. What Sanderson does so beautifully in Mistborn is to combine elements of seemingly different genres to tell an incredible story. Think Oceans Eleven mixed with A Tale of Two Cities and throw in some Robert Jordan. And it works perfectly.

art credit Marc Simonetti

 

Jace KillanI live in Arizona with my family, wife and five kids and a little dog. I write fiction, thrillers and soft sci-fi with a little short horror on the side. I’ve hold an MBA and work in finance for a biotechnology firm.

I volunteer with the Boy Scouts, play and write music, and enjoy everything outdoors. I’m also a novice photographer.

You can read some of my works by visiting my Wattpad page and learn more at www.jacekillan.com.

 

 

Don’t be Diss’n the Myth

A guest post by T.L. Smith.

Star_People_Legacy_Cover_for_Kindle“One man’s myth is another man’s religion.” Many variations of this quote exists, so I won’t try to figure out who said it first. I only bring it up because that’s a popular trope for writers. I’m one of them. But for all the vast potential we can pull from mythology/religion, I think authors should keep in mind how easy it is to cross the line from entertaining, to insulting.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not all up into ‘political correctness’, or afraid I’ll insult someone and they’ll come hunt me down. No, I’m talking about is how, with e-books and international markets, our writing crosses cultural borders all around the world. Even borders who try to regulate their internet and what their citizens can see. Our potential markets are virtually limitless.

I personally like the idea that a reader in some far corner of the world might get their hands on my book… and like it… and order more. With that in mind, I believe it’s possible to write a myth/religion based fiction, without insulting a large number of your potential readers. Whether you believe in their faith, or not.

It’s not pandering, it’s respect. In fact, internally I cringe when I use the word ‘myth’ out loud. Whether the followers truly believe(d) these characters exist(ed), or were created, they believe the purpose of God(s) is to guide humanity onto more enlightened paths. To better lives. To brighter futures. Even God(s) of destruction are there to cleanse and prepare the world for another attempt towards perfection.

So I put a lot of research into the characters I incorporate into my stories. I study them, good or evil, until I can see the person in my head. Until I can hear their voices, until I sense their intent to exist. Then I try to translate their personalities and motives onto the page and into my own stories.

Currently I’m working on a ‘gods are aliens’ Science Fiction novel series, that one day might see the light of day. All my gods, demi-gods, demons and humans, however obscure or popular, exist somewhere in the stories passed down through the world’s cultures.

The material available is vast and consuming, and in many cases…ewwwww. There’s some pretty twisted mentalities at play. Which makes me wonder about the original sources. Makes me sometimes wonder about myself too, as I try to bring these characters back to life in my own stories…just saying.

But back to paying proper homage to the trope… It might seem an easy task We see the ‘gods are aliens’ theories repeatedly on TV, but it’s not. It takes the right myth, the right region of the country of origin and an explanation to weave it into the fiction you’re writing. I just don’t see Zeus rampaging through modern Norway. Maybe waking from a long slumber to look down from Mt. Olympus and say “WTF?”

I wouldn’t add to Ulysses’ ordeal, but I might take on his mythical creatures and give them lives of their own, struggling to make this strange blue planet home after exile from their own distant destroyed world.

Then there’s bizarre stories of Gods on chariots, blankets, and winged creatures. The transport of Gods and their minions, awing the iron-age populace below. There are tales of war and weapons so devastating, they can alone destroy the entire planet. And let us not forget the gods’ insatiable appetites for human flesh, culinarily or erotically.

But be careful. As freewheeling as the ancient storytellers were, don’t take a character out of their personality. There things that Athena simply wouldn’t do, that Hera would, or Zeus took as a common practice. And speaking of ‘common’, unless you got a good twist, skip the usual suspects. They get a bit… boring. Dig deeper and pull out the gods few people know about. You get a lot more flexibility with their personalities and motives, without crossing the line.

However, this isn’t all about insulting someone’s religion. We want to be creative, but lend an accuracy to not offend the experts in this field. Last thing I want is some big-deal professor somewhere coming out against my book. I want a good review from them. Even if it’s ‘Didn’t like the story, but she got her facts straight. Thumbs up.’.

So how am I doing with paying the proper homage? Last year I released Star People Legacy. A story where Native American Mythology and Science Fiction collides down on the Yuma Bombing Ranges.

The ‘where’ was easy. I’m USAF and did my time down on the Gila Bend side of the ranges. The inspiration came from a story told by a couple NCOs who had an odd run-in on our bombing ranges. I carried the story around for (cough-cough) years, then on our way driving from Phoenix to San Diego Comic-Con, I told my friends the story. As clear as the Arizona skies 350 days of the year, Star People Legacy came to me as a concept.

Right there, in the back seat of Gini Koch’s car, I started writing out the concept. Then came the research. I could have stuck with myths (hate that word) isolated to the southwest, but I wanted it more universal. I looked for stories that spanned as many of the Nations as possible.

That is how I focused in on the Star People and their stories. I found an admiration for the stories and the Native Peoples brought together by them. I tried to incorporate that into the future world created for them, where social advances renew their cultures and internal politics help merge them into one Nation.

All the while a little part of me was afraid I might fail at respecting the Nations these stories originated from. Until Phoenix Comicon 2016. Sitting behind my books, a Native American family passed by. The mother saw Star People Legacy and looked up at me. Though her husband was rushing her to keep going, she grinned, pointing at the book. Before he pulled her away, she told me she’d read it, and loved it.

I so wanted to chase after her. To ask her straight up whether I’d given their story the respect it deserved, but someone heard her and stopped to look at the book. I’m happy with that few seconds of affirmation.

Now to get back to work on the next installment of aliens and gods.

Guest Writer Bio:
TL SmithT.L. Smith was born in Louisiana, but calls Phoenix, Arizona home between bouts of wanderlust. Even a stint in the U.S. Air Force as a radar specialist, training pilots in enemy detection, brought her back to the desert. Her time in the service taught her to appreciate the military culture and ever-changing technologies. Experience gives life to the Science Fictions she loves so much and helps her write about the strong women, holding their own as humanity reaches out into the universe. Come check out her current releases and where you can meet her next: www.tlsmithbooks.com