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Month: October 2022

Non-player characters (NPCs) in your fiction

Posted in Characters

Sometimes, in our zeal not to inflict too many characters on our readers, we forget that characters-as-scenery still have a role to play.

The image above is one of my real-life non-player characters, as rendered by a simple MidJourney AI image prompt [MidJourney has some challenges rendering animals….]. He's a shrew, and his name is Samson.

Let me explain…

We currently live in an 1812 stone and log cabin at the the top of a hollow embedded in the rise of the Allegheny plateau, part of a large bit of land we bought for hunting & vacation back in the '80s. (More details here and here and elsewhere.) The original settler's cabin had a single main room downstairs built into the hillside with a fireplace for living/cooking, and three rooms above for sleeping. A small plumbing/furnace extension in the 20th c. added a cellar/pantry below and another bedroom above.

Old buildings like this are, shall we say, semi-permeable to the local wildlife. Squirrels roll walnuts between the walls, snakes take advantage of knotholes in the logs, and mice dare our traps to spend the winter. Mostly they don't make their presence obvious, and we indulge in a fair amount of live and let live (undermined by occasionally disapproving cats who take matters into their own paws).

Recently we've added a member to our volunteer menagerie. A floorboard in the main room downstairs has broken at the corner and exposed a matchbook-sized hole to whatever ground-level original dirt or flooring surface lies below. And, so, a shrew has come to join us.

Now, a shrew has got about the fastest metabolism of any mammal. You never see one standing still, just blurring by at high speed, and since they're the size of a mouse or smaller, if you blink you'll miss them. We're sure of our identification, because the first one ran through the main room from the fireplace corner to the dogs' water dish in the adjacent cellar. We once carelessly left the water level too low for her to get out, and she drowned (providing the evidence). We lamented the unintended death (and named her Ophelia), but soon she was replaced by a successor who is providing us with a great deal of amusement.

You see, this one has taken up some form of construction. He zooms from the floorboard hole to the back of our cheap modern electric stove and proceeds to make an astonishing amount of noise involving metal and scrabbling (and jackhammers and god knows what) — this, despite the oven still being in use periodically, to no apparent effect.

And now comes the point of this post… We want to know what this shrew is doing. We've invented a rationale (he's building bookcases under the oven to hold his comic collection – hence the image above) and we've given him a name (Samson) in recognition of his prodigious activities.

We had to do that — this is a critter with agency whom we encounter on a regular basis. We had to create a story for him. It's what people do. It's beside the point whether the story is true or not.

Well, your fictional POV characters would do the same with the people and other critters in their environment, wouldn't they? That's what struck me; unlike some of my fantasy worlds with limited numbers of onstage people, my current WIP is set in a faux-regency urban environment, and that means that my characters would naturally see all sorts of people all the time — the beggar on a corner, the tailor's assistant sweeping his master's steps every morning, the gentleman who tips his hat to you because you have come to recognize each other on your daily walks, the mangy cat who shows up looking for a handout. None of these are named characters, and none will provide a POV, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be there, and that your real POV characters don't notice and speculate about them casually, the way we all do. Add them to your fictional world's environment and make it seem more like real life (and less of a vacuum).

An Anniversary Story

Posted in A Writer's Desk, and To Carry the Horn

10 years ago, on October 9, I indie-published To Carry the Horn, the first book of a fantasy series.

This wasn’t the culmination of a long-standing dream with lots of childhood wishes, false starts, and abandoned projects. No, it was my very first bit of story-telling, ever. I skipped the “childhood illustrated scribbles”, “fanfic circulated amongst teenage friends”, etc., and waited until I was 58 to write my very first work, not as a short story, but as a 442-page entry for a 4-books-plus-stories series.

And I would probably never have fully embraced the endeavor without the company and encouragement of other writers and indie publishers, many of the folks on this blog, and others like you.

You see, when I started, I didn’t know any other writers socially, and had barely heard of indie-publishing. Of course, I had devoured thousands of books (I married the only man I ever met who had more books than I did – we’re talking circa 2000 book boxes worth of storage). My genre favorite was SFF, but I had never been moved to create a story myself.

And then… one morning, my husband and I were driving to one of the weekly fox hunts in Virginia where we and a few others followed the hunt by car (yes, this can be done). Along the way we lamented the uncertainties of retirement, what we would do with all our “stuff”, and so forth, and then one of us suggested, “We should just retire to Elfland. We could hunt, and fish, and I bet they read a lot of books…” and – WHAM – Cernunnos whacked me over the head and told me to get going. I began dreaming plausible plot threads that night.

The first struggle was all about “gee, that stinks, doesn’t it?” – experienced taste vs beginner’s writing – but it didn’t take all that long to settle on a form and process that worked for me. (I had taken up various musical instruments and forms from scratch and had a pretty good idea of what the whole new-craft-from-standing-start process was like, including the psychology of self-doubt and disappointment that comes with the territory.)

Once the writing was under control, I faced all the indie publishing challenges that everyone does, as one of the pioneers. It helped that I was a data nerd already, with a career in tech and data analysis and small businesses.

It was finding the communities of writers (and indies) that really gave me my final confidence to just commit and start publishing. (Although by then, the sheer joy of writing would have swept all barriers away.) Ten years later, and I’m still having a ball. 8 books (2 series) and a few stories are out, 2 ½ books of a new long series are written (and will be released when book 3 is done), and nothing will stop me now, Cernunnos willing and the creek don’t rise.

I just wanted to give thanks to some of the folks who counsel and encourage writers and indies – you have no idea how much that’s worth to people you may never meet in person. Keep it up, and they’ll return the favor!