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Author: Karen Myers

Karen Myers is a fantasy and science fiction author, best known for her heroic fantasy novels. Her stories feature heroes in real and imagined worlds filled with magic, space travel, and adventure.

The bottomless well of British humor

Posted in Characters

There's no question — P. G. Woodhouse does it best.

His well-honed diction for the innumerable stories of those bumbling idiots (by and large) who came up through the English public school system to graduate (or not) as members of the nominal Drones Club have been delighting readers for decades.

Bertie Wooster and his keeper (um, valet) Jeeves are the best known players in this sunny world of nothing-ever-goes-permanently-wrong. Bertie and his fellow drones while away their time concocting preposterous schemes and shrinking from their occasional responsibilities.

But Wodehouse is just one of a great many witty authors utilizing this trope of companions in feckless idiocy. One of my other favorites is Georgette Heyer (1902-1974). It doesn't matter whether or not you like the romance genre — Jane Austen's “Comedies of Manners” launched a century-later fashion in Regency romance and Heyer is by a very great margin far the best author of these. The characters and the plots are light and amiable, the period research is impeccable, and her language is a delight. Instead of the Drones Club, we have a class of rich, young men referred to as Corinthians, among other things.

Parcheesi as a model for character emotions

Posted in Characters

Let's see if I can make sense of something I've recently observed.

If you don't know the rules of the game of Parcheesi, don't worry about it. There are variants, but I'll just stick with one version. Here's the part that matters to this discussion:

  • You have up to 4 moveable pieces that have to go from a starting point all the way around the board and into the center. If they are “killed” (an enemy piece lands on their space), they are knocked back to the beginning.
  • You have up to 3 opponents trying to do the same thing first from their starting point.
  • You can send someone else's piece back to the beginning by moving to its space, unless the space is protected.
  • Some spaces are protected and pieces on them can't be knocked back to the beginning.
  • A space can hold no more than two pieces. Any space with two pieces is a barrier and can't be passed.
  • You roll a die (in some versions two dice, but we'll stick with one for this example) to determine how many spaces you can move one of your pieces. You can't refuse to move. If it is not possible to move that many spaces, you lose your turn.

Whew! So, here's the stuff that guides your thinking every time you take a turn…

  • When you roll the die, you have a 1/6 chance of any particular value.
  • You have to pick which of your pieces to move (and not all may be moveable that many spaces).
  • You have to pay attention to where the other players' pieces are, in case they roll a value that could eliminate one of yours.
  • You have to be conscious of which players are closer to a final win in case you can preferentially knock one of their pieces back or block them.
  • You have to consider which of your own pieces are closer to the end (and have come the longest distance), making it more expensive to lose them.

Now, like all games that include chance as an element (unlike, say, chess), the emotions of gambling manifest. Before you roll the die, there's an ideal outcome, and before your opponent rolls, there's a worst possibility. So, at every die roll you find yourself cheering for one outcome and dreading others.

Worldbuilding you can live in…

Posted in Dustings of Blue, Fantasy, Research, Setting, and The Affinities of Magic

One of the foundational elements of a Science-Fiction or a Fantasy story is its setting. All stories have settings, but a contemporary novel can get away with skimming over things its readers already understand from their daily lives in a way than a lot of SFF can't.

If you don't describe the space ship and its limitations, you can't picture the characters in that environment. If you don't ground the Hero-with-a-Mission™ in a particular place and time and culture, you can't move him around in a realistic way that lets your readers identify with him.

The picture above is the background full cover for Structures of Earth, the first book in my new series The Affinities of Magic. [Reminder — I am finishing the first three books before releasing the first one, and I'm in the middle of book 3, Dustings of Blue, now…]

Most Fantasy authors feature their characters on their covers, and I am no exception. But just this once, for the first book of what I expect to be a long series, I wanted to feature the setting: a wizard guild hall that has fallen on very hard times, in a backwater of the capitol city of an empire that is just beginning to feel the impact of its Industrial Revolution. The hero will become one of the movers & shakers of an Industrial Revolution of Magic.

So far, so good. I certainly understood the real British Industrial revolution well enough as a model for a lot of what I had in mind, so I poured out the first two books with satisfying stories that worked for me. This was followed by a pause for life events (all better now), and then I started to put the third book together, eager to begin releases. And then I realized… my understanding of the Industrial Revolution was clear enough, but my understanding of living through it — dealing with urban life, transportation, servants, architecture, etc., was somewhat… inadequate for my purpose in my built-world.

Stories that never grow old

Posted in Heroes, Plot, and Villains

Never be afraid to revive the old tales (poor monstrous Polyphemus, about to be blinded by Odysseus after a hard day's work shepherding). They've survived this long for a reason.

How do we change from feral infants to moral men? By learning the stories of our culture, and we've had stories for as long as we've had language.

We tell each other stories of how cleverness can beat strength, of how strength can defeat evil, of how evil can seduce weakness, of how weakness can learn cleverness.

We learn the many ways that we can make wrong choices, at the peril of our lives or our souls, and how we can rescue ourselves and others from those choices. Or fail.

Humor, stoicism, endurance, discipline, sacrifice, kindness, temptation — stories give us a handle on all these things.

The foundational religious texts are just, after all, more stories teaching the same things. The existence of the actual deities are the excuse for the stories, but the stories themselves are what strike to the core of how to communicate the morality of the lessons.

Morality is essential to humans — we can't escape it. If we don't imprint on a worthwhile cultural template, then we'll imprint on a bad one. In terms of education, “reading, writing, and, ‘rithmetic” are secondary to language and morality. If we don't learn moral codes of behavior, moral ways of life, well… the rest matters very little.

And we learn how to behave by the stories we hear. Religious or philosphical or ethical justification for those behaviors comes later.

So tell good stories — stories we can learn from. Stories we need to hear.

Living in imaginary worlds

Posted in A Writer's Desk, and Setting

It's not enough, when writing about an historical or fictional world, to just imagine the physical differences (oil lamps, horses) or cultural differences (harems, rites of passage), and then explore how those differences play out in a character's life. It's the intellectual differences, the things that create the equivalence of “future shock”, that I find particularly compelling.

This cartoon resonated with me because I so clearly remember my (irrational but visceral) outrage when I first encountered the history of the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), which began life as a series of handwritten or typed scraps of paper shoved into pigeonholes in a repurposed greenhouse. This, for a dictionary containing hundreds of thousands of entries and citations. I suddenly flashed on an image of the labor involved in the simple clerical creation and moving about of all that data in the absence of computers.

Somehow, the thousands of man hours to build the pyramids or dig a canal was something I took for granted, something I couldn't really envisage doing myself, so I have a certain distance from it. But I'm a computer-native, and I felt, to my fingertips, what the labor would have been to wrangle all the data for the OED over multiple lifetimes. That was something that hit home to me.

Make things like that resonate with your characters. Make your readers feel that.

Protect your ability to keep working, no matter what happens: Part 2

Posted in Business

Part 1 of this article can be found here.

So, how do you support all the various business & production procedures you use to keep your small businesses, including your publishing business, alive? Seems doable at the moment, maybe, but what happens if you're out of commission for a while — sick, perhaps, or dealing with an emergency, or otherwise diverted from your normal processes. Let's pretend you can't think as clearly as usual, or can't give your business all your attention… maybe for months or longer.

Think your backups are current? Think you can restore your computer environment from scratch without a few notes? Maybe you have a service taking care of some of that, but do they cover everything?

Think you're going to remember the whole series of intricate procedures you learned as you became an indie, the ones you take to start a newsletter campaign, publish a new book, track all the bookkeeping details? All those miserable little steps, all those integrated bits of automation, just waiting to go out of synch?

There are things you can do to help you insure against complete misery relearning how everything works, when you're not really up to recreating complicated things.

But you need to actually take some organized and methodical steps to get there.

Protect your ability to keep working, no matter what happens: Part 1

Posted in Business

What I need is staff. Young, responsible staff. (Not to mention heirs…) Sigh.

Let me muse a bit about how lives change, and what that can do to our one-man businesses.

I've been retired for a few years, but I'm still in my 60s and healthy. I spent my career building and running small tech companies, and I've spent my life with computers. My indie publishing business, Perkunas Press, is just the latest (about 10 years old) of my various tiny businesses and similar pro-bono activities.

So, naturally, I feel both seasoned and competent to set up and maintain bookkeeping and tracking systems for all my various activities. The only professional services I pay for the businesses themselves (as opposed to, say, buying book covers) is a tax accountant to take my final numbers and put them in the right places on the forms.

I run everything from my primary computer (a laptop), back most things up online on Dropbox (rural bandwidth prevents me backing up everything across a network), and run full system backups weekly locally, with a secondary PC.

What could go wrong? 🙂

4-Act Structure, Ballad-style

Posted in Plot

There are several ways to structure a novel, and I won't be going into them all.

The structure I use is called the 4-Act Structure (you can see more about it here (scroll down at the link — there's a helpful diagram). In essence, there are 2 acts of about the same length, followed by a mid-point crisis, followed by 2 more acts. Different stories and different authors use different structures, but this is what works for me.

I don't think of this for shorter works, since I don't write many, but other people do. It's just a good way to tell a story.

For a good example, take a look at this popular Child Ballad (#269) called “Lady Diamond”.