The Veil War

"and then I was like, 'Holy crap, goblins!'"

Category: Really Big Idea

The Really Big Idea: M. H. Mead

I think I first ran across the idea of genetically engineered dogs in Starship Troopers. Granted, it wasn’t a major part of the story, but it got me thinking. Reading the Uplift Series by David Brin, I wished he had seen fit to have included uplifted dogs along with the dolphins, chimps and gorillas. I’ve always been a dog kinda guy. This quote is again apropos:

There was one species on Terra that lived in very close symbiosis with the domesticated primates. This was a variety of domesticated canines called dogs.

The dogs had learned to achieve a rough simulation of guilt and remorse and worry and other domesticated primate characteristics.

The domesticated primates had learned how to achieve simulations of loyalty and dignity and cheerfulness and other canine characteristics.

The primates claimed that they loved the dogs as much as the dogs loved them. Still, the primates kept the best food for themselves. The dogs noticed this, you can be sure, but they loved the primates so much that they forgave them.

There’s a lot to be said about dogs. Really, really smart dogs would allow rather more scope. And that’s what Margaret Yang and Harry Campion are attempting.

The Big Idea—Margaret Yang and Harry R. Campion writing together as M.H. Mead

There are many things to consider when two people collaborate on a novel, but here’s a biggie—do we both love the story? Are we both willing to take this emotional journey with our characters? THE CALINE CONSPIRACY is about dogs, and neither of us has owned a dog in years. Could we let our personal history color our fiction, relive the pain of losing our pets, face the guilt we feel over their deaths?

Some dogs are easy to love. Ours weren’t. Take Hobbes, a goofy-looking mutt that Margaret adopted from the pound. For eight years, Hobbes was the only child Margaret had. She kept Margaret company when her husband was out of town and took daily walks with her. While Hobbes wasn’t affectionate, she was at least quiet and well-behaved.

That is, until Margaret’s children were born. Hobbes never got over losing her status. Once human children joined the family, she went from a sweet girl to a grouchy old lady seemingly overnight. She peed in the house, wouldn’t let anyone pet her, and perferred being alone to being with people.

Harry found Franklin abandoned at a Smokey Mountains campground when he was just out of puppyhood. Franklin was a gorgeous strawberry blond mixed breed who had a warm doggie grin for anyone who came his way. He liked Harry’s family, but he was never really one of them. Franklin was only truly happy when he was running free. He perfected the art of escaping from the fenced-in yard and Harry fielded constant phone calls from angry neighbors when Franklin soiled their yards, chased their children, and flaunted his liberty to their dogs. When forced to stay home, he communicated his displeasure by constant barking.

We gave our hearts to these dogs. We tried everything to help them be the special family members we knew they could be. When our efforts didn’t work, we tried harder. We failed. In the last few months of her life, Hobbes wet the floor several times per day and bit anyone who came near her. Franklin was a wide-roaming transient whose tags were often the only tether maintaining his connection with Harry’s family.

Which brings us back to THE CALINE CONSPIRACY. The main character, Aidra, is a PI who adores dogs. But years ago, she suffered the loss of her beloved Doberman in the most painful way possible. Even now, she refuses to get another pet. She knows that one way or another, even the most wonderful dog will break her heart.

Then Madeline enters Aidra’s life. Madeline is a caline—a genetically-engineered dog that is the ideal of the species. Calines are smart, loyal, gentle, and beautiful. They even smell good, as they emit pheromones that attract and calm humans. But there’s a problem. Madeline is accused of killing her owner and all evidence says she did it. Aidra is hired to clear Madeline’s name—a seemingly impossible task. But the more she investigates, the more she becomes convinced an innocent animal is being framed. Proving it takes everything she has, physically and emotionally, but in the end, she heals some of the scars from her past.

Writing THE CALINE CONSPIRACY healed us, too. Our dogs weren’t perfect. No dog is. Nor is any owner. We did the best we could, trying to give these difficult dogs a happy life in a caring home. Writing THE CALINE CONSPIRACY helped us remember the good times with hard-to-love dogs that we loved anyway. Dogs who, to the best of their abilities, loved us back.

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The Really Big Idea: Russell Blake

I found Russell on the Twitter, locked in eternal combat with his mortal enemies, the clowns. Supported only by the love of his followers, alcohol, and a few brave Lithuanian sex workers; he guards us all from the evil machinations of the kōlobathristēs. Hatred of clowns may seem a slender reed upon which to build a relationship, but it has been a fruitful one. Russell typically writes adrenaline-fueled thrillers. And this book is no different. However, there is a bit of idea lurking in there, and I’ll let Russell explain it:

The Voynich Cipher

My latest book, The Voynich Cypher, is an action/adventure novel that uses the Voynich Manuscript as the basis of the underlying conspiracy/treasure hunt. I first became familiar with the Voynich years ago, when a friend of mine who is really into cryptography told me about it. It’s 240 or so pages of “quires” (chapters) with fantastical illustrations, written entirely in an unknown language, believed by most of the best cryptologists of the last century to be a cypher. It’s never been cracked, in spite of being a lifelong fascination for many notables in the code-breaking field. Controversy has surrounded the document almost since it was rediscovered in the early 20th Century, when it was bought by rare book dealer Wilfrid Voynich in 1912, from amongst the possessions of a recently deceased Jesuit general. It has remained enigmatic and inscrutable ever since, and has baffled and confounded generations of experts. Numerous theories have been advanced on the script, none of them correct, or at least not correct enough to decipher it. From time to time it’s been theorized that it was written in a hoax language, but those notions were debunked by rigorous study of the nuance of the text, which is far more sophisticated than any hoax would have required, or than would have been possible to create in the 1400s.

Authorship is a hotly debated aspect of the manuscript. Speculations have abounded – everything from 13th century father of modern science Roger Bacon, to Shakespeare (Francis Bacon), to flim-flam men, con artists and rogues. The truth is that nobody knows. The vellum was recently carbon dated to the mid 1400s, so it is in fact what it appears to be: a medieval document of unknown origin apparently written entirely in code or some unknown language, which chronicles medical, astronomical and botanical knowledge, if the illustrations are any indication. The Voynich Manuscript is truly one of the world’s most inscrutable mysteries, and is the most viewed document at the Beinecke Library at Yale University, where it has resided since the 1960s.

When I decided to try something different than the conspiracy thrillers I’m known for, I started looking around for a mystery. I wanted something that was genuine and verifiable that I could twist and mold into an entirely plausible story. The Voynich occurred to me almost completely by accident – I was reviewing candidate possibilities, and one of them was mentioned alongside the Voynich. That triggered my recollection of long discussions with my buddy, and I was on the road.

I wanted to create an enduring modern fable, something that was both social commentary and adventure, and that was completely non-disprovable. That’s a tall order, and became taller still when I began researching all the aspects of the saga I wanted to include. Months went into everything from Roman geography and arcana, to the Voynich itself, to numerous cryptography tomes, to the various authorship theories (I read several books that made logical, but ultimately incorrect arguments), to the history of the Catholic Church, to the Rosicrucians and Templars, to medieval secret societies, to Masonic lore. I put the book aside several times to write others, but always returned to it, drawn by what I felt is a compelling tale.

The Voynich Cypher is a special novel for me, because it represents my desire to spread my wings and attempt something I’ve always wanted to do, but never felt I had the chops for until recently – to write a Foucault’s Pendulum sort of book that a modern audience could relate to easily, but that didn’t pander. That type of book is hard – it’s difficult to move a plot along at breakneck pace and keep things unexpected at every turn, while imparting a tremendous amount of detail, and writing it was a challenge I’m glad I stepped up to. My hope is that readers who enjoy Dan Brown or Cussler’s work will enjoy Voynich, and that it will be compared favorably to their efforts.

Buy The Voynich Cypher: amazon

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The Really Big Idea: DeAnna Knippling

“Only beer can save us now.” Truer words have never been spoken, unless they were amended to “Only whiskey can save us now.” That might be have an edge on truth. The last place you expect to find truth is on the cover of a book. In the book, sure. But the outside is renowned for not being at all like the inside. I didn’t drink until after high school – I started with meisterchow at my small midwestern college. Didn’t have money for much else. But when I moved out on my own, I transitioned to good beer. Craft brews, micro brews, homebrews. Loved it. That was a happy ten years. That beer would inspire a novel does not in the least surprise me, for in the immortal words of Homer, “Beer, is there anything it can’t do?”

Trying to Wrap a Beer Around a Fish

Sometimes we get thrown into deep waters and don’t realize until after we’ve learned to swim.  That’s how this book started out for me: I started a new job.  I had been working as a quality analyst at a bank doing some technical writing and editing. I wanted to get more into the technical writing and editing side of things, but…that bank.  It was a great place to work, as long as you knew the right people and knew how to keep your mouth shut, but apparently the people who wanted the same job knew better people than I did, probably because I was so good at keeping my mouth shut.  So I left the bank and looked around until I found a technical writing job at a military base.

Now, I know that to many people a military base is not the scariest place in the world.  But I had no experience with the military, with working on a government contract, or a thousand other things that you take for granted in that kind of world like security fences and eighteen-year-old guards with machine guns.  I knew Corporate America.  I didn’t know Government America.  In Corporate America, you fire people.  In Government America, you transfer them into another job and hope they don’t transfer back.  On top of that, I was dropped into a vat of ex-military guys.  Ex-military guys are not like people who have been working in corporate America their whole lives.  They’re more conservative for one thing, but in a way I wasn’t used to coming from the Midwest: one second they’d be talking about states’ rights and the next, they’d be talking about Thai food.  Where I grew up it was steak, potatoes, and Jell-O salad all the way: eating as a political statement.  I had trouble thinking of these guys as really conservative; they didn’t fit my mold.  They’d gone places, you know?  The rednecks I’d grown up with didn’t go anywhere and they looked down on people who did.

So here I am, my whole world shaken up, when over the cube wall comes a lot of talk about beer.  I mean, months of it.  I had to do something with all that information; I’m a nerd, after all.  So I started writing this story about a mouthy guy. I guess he’s conservative, but I never really worked that out consciously; who brews beer and doesn’t want to be bothered by anything outside his little world. He’s worked his butt off to get his world the way he wants it, and I could never blame him.  I threw in all kinds of characters: from the base, from people I’d grown up with, from people that I hated, from people that I loved.  People who had struck me as particularly intense.  Then I twisted them up a little, gave them unresolvable problems, and tossed them in with each other.  Because that’s what the base was like: a wide variety of people that had to get along, and had to get the job done, and didn’t have a lot of filters.  How do you get along with someone you disagree with, who won’t shut up, and who thinks that a drill sergeant is a good role model?  You work it out or the group falls apart, and I wanted to capture that feeling.  Not to say this is a political book; it’s a book about how people act when they’re in that kind of hothouse where everybody knows everybody else and they’re all trying not to kill each other, yet they’re not polite about it.  In the Midwest, everyone’s polite as a strategy to keep from killing each other. There are a lot of things you don’t say.  I found working out at the base like a long, cold glass of water: I could swear, I could say my opinions; I could be wrong, yet not be ostracized.  I got laughed at, sure, but not kicked out.  I loved it.

Ironically, before I started working out there, I didn’t care for beer.  Growing up in the Midwest, beer was American and you loved it or else you were a commie pinko.  And it couldn’t just be American beer; it had to be Coors or Bud Light.  I didn’t care for either one of them.  When I started drinking, I fell in love with gin and Jagermeister and tequila (not at the same time) and all kinds of spirits that tasted like something.  This beer stuff was for shit, and I wasn’t wasting time or brain cells on it.  After listening to hours and hours about homebrew, I finally got the nerve to try some craft beers.  I forget what I started with, really.  I’m sure I started writing before I started drinking the beer, because I remember thinking, “Well, if you’re going to write about it, you’re going to have to drink it.”  I picked up a copy of Brewing Up a Business: Adventures in Beer from the Founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery and read it (good book) as research before I started drinking, and I think it was that book that tipped me over the edge. So I wouldn’t be surprised if Sam Calagione didn’t end up as part of the main character, too.  I want to say that Fat Tire was the first craft beer I had.  (And now I’m thinking, “Does Fat Tire count as a craft beer?  It’s everywhere.”  But it’s not, my husband went out to DC a while ago and couldn’t find any.  One of the good parts of Colorado culture is the beer, and you start taking it for granted.) “Huh,” I said.  “Not too bad.”  Since then, I’ve tried a lot of different things.  It took a long time before I really got into IPAs, but I’m starting to get better at them (it feels almost like acquiring a skill, learning how to drink IPAs).

I walked into the job (and the book) while getting my ideas all shaken up…by the time I walked out of the job (although finishing the book took years after that), I had learned how to drink beer, how to spout my opinion to whoever the hell I wanted, in whatever terms I felt like (and to get away with it, most of the time), and to let my mind get changed about people in a lot of the same ways the main character does.  At one point, he talks about how he used to judge people on whether or not they gave him more than they got–even down to the point of whether they liked his beer.  He doesn’t really come to any conclusions, but he does stop thinking about “the world” as one little podunk town, and “a friend” as someone who tells him what he wants to hear and does what he wants them to do.  I like to think I’ve changed a little in that direction, too.

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The Really Big Idea: Thomas Marinich

Humor. It’s all about.

Timing. Or so I’ve been told. Though I love the dark, serious style – Lord of the Rings, Dune, and thousands of others – comedy has often gotten a bit of the shaft. Because it isn’t serious, it isn’t taken seriously. But I know that my life would be immeasurably poorer had I not read, say, Good Omens by Gaiman and Pratchett, or lesser known works like The Greks Bring Gifts by Leinster or Martians, Go Home by Brown. What I like about this big idea is that while poking fun at George Lucas and what his creations are and have become is in some senses easy, that is only the backdrop for a story that has a life of its own – in this case literally. I will leave you with the immortal words of Mel Brooks, who said, “Comedy is when you fall in a sewer and die. Tragedy is when I get a papercut.”

Binge Wars

I’ve always dreamed of being a writer, but never really gave writing any serious thought. Growing up, I wrote stories in my notebook all the time for the amusement of friends. Space stories. Inspired by Star Wars. More accurately, they were spoofs of Star Wars. I was an avid reader of Mad magazine at the time as well. But when it came time to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up, I never considered writing as an option.

I studied computer engineering in college, though well into my career in that field, writing never left my mind. I had ideas for stories and developed characters, but I never committed them to paper. What it really came down to was a lack of confidence. Something eventually changed that, however.

It started with the release of The Phantom Menace. The release of a new Star Wars movie brought out the little boy in me. And that drove me to the Internet. At first, to the official Star Wars Web site. After many Web searches, I eventually stumbled upon a Star Wars-themed message board. Here, I was in contact with fellow sci-fi fans from all over the world. We initially discussed and debated Episode I but eventually went on conversing about politics, world events, personal affairs, you name it. So naturally, over time, these strangers became friends.

This community became a second home—an online home—for a number of us. Not only did friendships form, but relationships sprouted as well. Online friendships and relationships soon transcended the Internet, mostly those not separated by the oceans. For me, I was mostly an observer; I was too busy with work to get that involved, but the community was a nice little escape from the dreaded real world.

One of the attractions to this community, for me anyway, was the entertainment. At first, that entertainment came from the talent of some of its more creative members. They wrote stories using the most popular members of the message board as characters. I thought this was nothing less than brilliant. And it got my creative juices flowing. However, I didn’t jump into the fray with my own story—not right away anyway. I wasn’t exactly one of those popular members. I never made it into any of the members’ stories, so I had serious doubts that anything that I wrote and posted would receive the same level of praise and accolades as those from the popular members.

During that time, I traveled a lot for work, driving back and forth between Pennsylvania and Maryland. Those long four hour drives gave way to a lot of thinking. One idea that worked its way into my head was to incorporate some of these netizens (as I like to refer to them) as minor characters in one of the sci-fi stories that I was trying to develop. I reasoned that they could be fighter pilots—much like Wedge was in Star Wars.

Another hour into that particular drive and I threw that idea out. These netizens were too interesting to be relegated to the role of “minor” characters—they needed their own story. After observing and interacting with these folks for over two years, I decided that the plot would come directly from their online postings. Yes, I finally decided to take my plunge into posting my first online story—Binge Wars.

Binge Wars loosely spoofed Star Wars as that was the common interest of the online community. It told the story of the two most famous (or infamous depending on point of view) community members—a couple who met at this message board. Through a sci-fi adventure that depicted Earth in a futuristic war, the couple’s unfolding romance took center stage.

I took the community’s most popular members and divvied them up between Earth soldiers, space pirates and the bad guys. Role playing games were one form of entertainment on the message board. One particular RPG was a group of Britons posting about binging on alcohol. Since all the Imperial officers in Star Wars were British actors, I knew who my bad guys were, and thus Binge Wars was born.

I posted a chapter each night after work and my story was an instant success. It was such a hit that when it concluded, the message board pleaded for a sequel. I did them one better, so in the spirit of Star Wars, I provided a trilogy. And yet, that wasn’t enough for them. I continued the adventure with a second trilogy. A third was then demanded—the community simply could not get enough.

I stopped at this point. Although I enjoyed my online “celebrity” that came from Binge Wars, my life had changed. Shortly after the conclusion of the sixth and final episode of the series, 911 happened and I was soon unemployed. Writing an online series was the last thing on my mind at this point. Given the depth of the recession that followed that horrific day, I was out of work for over a year. During this dark time in my life, I kept in touch with my online friends from that community. After sharing my depressing story with them, some of them pointed out the obvious that seemed to have escaped me: publish Binge Wars.

I thought it a silly idea at first, easily dismissed by my lack of confidence that had plagued me all along. But I mulled the idea over for the next week. Was it really that silly? After all, the stories proved themselves already. Although to a specific audience, the stories already had a small fan base. But would a story told about a specific online community, using the board’s own postings as plots and subplots, play to the outside world?

The episodes would need an overhaul, that much was for sure. The inside jokes needed removed. The characters would need to be developed. I could no longer rely on the familiarity that my target audience (the message board) had with each character. With some work though, I was confident that I could make this happen.

The stories needed another change. I held back in the online versions. There was plenty of material that never made that cut, but was prime for a release to the general public—the juicy bits. These were the parts that would entice an outside audience to the stories. These were the second form of entertainment that I alluded to earlier. The drama. Some of it spewed on the Web pages of the message board, but most of it played out in other forms: private messages, instant messaging, emails, in person meetings between members, and so on.

I decided that Binge Wars was to tell the true drama that unfolded at the message board: the behind-the-scenes power struggles, the romances and breakups, the backstabbing, the gossip, the shattered friendships, and all the untold drama that didn’t make it to surface in online postings.

How did I become privy to such information? Let’s just say that “celebrity” had its advantages. Many of the community members in Binge Wars tried to use my stories as another form to either hurt or attack other members. Many reached out to me privately. Although I listened (I prefer the term “research” instead), those tidbits failed to make the cut in the online versions. I was not to be used for anyone’s propaganda or agenda. The novelization of Binge Wars, however, would be different.

The war between Earth and the drunken race known as the Binge is still the backdrop. The book not only tells of Earth’s struggle to win a galactic war, but the personal struggles that plague its armed forces that fight that war. The novel is told through the original six episodes. Each individual episode focuses on a specific community member and tells their story as a subplot but also moves the main plot of the novel along, which is still about that couple. They are the central theme of the entire novel. And through the different point-of-views of the online community members, or characters in the book, their story is told.

The spirit of Binge Wars—the novel—is the same as the online version. It is a comedy. Nothing more. Nothing less. It doesn’t have a message. It’s not a coming-of-age tale. It simply sets out to make you laugh—and you will.

That’s Binge Wars in a nutshell. It all started as a short story posted on the Internet for a bunch of obsessed Star Wars fans. It quickly blossomed into three short stories, then six, and is now a complete novel.

Buy Bingewars: amazon

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The Really Big Idea: Sean Poindexter

Sean Poindexter is still ahead of me on the Shorty nominations. But that’s okay, it’s how we were introduced and how he came to be this week’s Really Big Idea author. Sean’s big idea gave me a big garish flashback, causing me to remember in all-too-vivid detail a particular page in the old second edition Deities and Demigods book from Dungeons and Dragons.

To believe as our ancestors did, that there is a reality behind myth, is now beneath contempt. But in important ways, these things were more real to them than the everyday world around them. People need things to believe in. If you doubt this, ask your nearest progressive about global warming, or your nearest white supremacist about the global Jewish conspiracy. Another key fact about people is that they’re lazy. People rarely invent, typically they embellish. (There was a warming trend – it just didn’t end with boiling seas. There are rich Jewish bankers.) The idea that there is something behind myth is therefore a powerful one, and dragons one of the strongest myths.

To the Shadow of Tiamat 

The title of the first book in the Dragon’s Blood Chronicles refers to a being by the name of Tiamat. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because I didn’t make it up. Tiamat is an ancient name, older than any god or deity worshiped on Earth by humans today. The name has a very specific and significant meaning in my books.

If you’ve read the book you’ll notice that the dragons use the term “To the Shadow of Tiamat!” as a benediction. Several dragons also use the term “Praise Tiamat!” or reference her in some reverent manner. This would usually lead people to conclude that the dragons worship Tiamat as a god.

In fact, they do not.

In ancient Babylon, Tiamat was an important part of their creation myths and the mother of all monsters. Tiamat has been used in other forms of media as well. One of my favorite bands is called Tiamat: I’ve been listening to them since I was very young, and that is part of what sparked my interest in the name. Tiamat is also an important part of the Dungeons and Dragons role playing game, and even made an appearance on the old Dungeons and Dragons cartoon show. In this incarnation, she is depicted as a multi-headed dragon. She is also evil. My Tiamat is not evil, nor does she have more than one head. She is also depicted as being able to turn into a beautiful woman, particularly in the Forgotten Realms DnD setting (in Dragonlance, she is referred to as Takhesis). Since dragons in my world can assume human form, presumably so can Tiamat. Ancient Babylonians did not specify that she was a dragon, but they believed in dragons and that she was their mother:

When the skies above were not yet named

Nor earth below pronounced by name,

Apsu, the first one, their begetter,

And maker Tiamat, who bore them all,

Had mixed their waters together,

But had not formed pastures, nor discovered reed-beds;

When yet no gods were manifest,

Nor names pronounced, nor destinies decreed,

Then gods were born within them. (Dalley 233)

Apsu is not mentioned in the first book, but he was a dragon as well. He and Tiamat spawned the race. Where they came from is something you’ll just have to wait to find out. The mystery of how dragons (and, for that matter, all otherworldly beings) came to be is answered over the course of several books. I can’t just give everything away at the beginning.

In my books, Tiamat was a dragon, though a different kind of one. Her children were the dragons of Earth. They revere her as the mother of their race, and believe she will be waiting for them in the afterlife (the aforementioned “Shadow” is a reference to this) but do not worship her as a god.

If you looked closely at the names of some of the dragons in my books, you’ll see some other familiar names as well. Many of the older dragons were worshiped as Gods or other great powers by primitive beings. When humanity was in its cultural infancy, dragons and humans co-existed—relatively. They didn’t exactly live in the same neighborhoods, but primitive humans were aware of them, though they weren’t always aware that they were dragons. Often they were viewed as gods or demons. Since dragons don’t generally like being around humans—even though they can imitate them perfectly—some liked taking advantage of the reverence primitive humans payed them. Dragons enjoy works of beauty, hence their need to collect wealth. Having a cult of humans around to produce art for them, and to satisfy some of their other needs, was an enjoyable pastime for dragons. Eventually, a ruling body of dragons put a stop to this and forbade other dragons from doing this any longer. From that point on, if dragons were to ever interact with humans, they must do so in the guise of a human. Likewise, they were forbidden from interfering in human politics or culture.

Unfortunately, the “damage” was already done, hosts of pantheons and belief systems revolving around different dragons infested human spirituality. Some of the dragons even managed to pass their spiritual beliefs on to humans. As time passed and tales changed, Tiamat became a creator goddess to the ancient Sumerians. If you looked closely at the names of some of the dragons in my books, you’ll see some other familiar names as well. Many of the older dragons were worshiped as Gods or other great powers by primitive beings. Whether the humans based their gods on dragons with those names, or the dragons took their names from the mythology of humans they lived near, is up for the reader to learn…

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The Really Big Idea: John Lumpkin

Today for the really big idea we veer back to space. As John Lumpkin describes the thought process behind his debut novel, Through Struggle, The Stars, he raises an important point about constraints. The obvious thing about having a structure is that it means you don’t have to reinvent the wheel at every point. You just don’t have to worry about certain things. But the more important effect of constraints is on the mind: they make you try harder. Look at the difference between Star Wars and Phantom Menace and tell me I’m wrong. Real constraints can force creativity whether you’re dealing with shortages of money or the lack of an FTL drive.

And as a side note, the website that John mentions is fantastic and well worth a couple weeks of your time.

A Big Rock

To tell the stories I wanted to tell, I needed a big rock.

Not too big – not the sort of rock that puts the roaches in charge or leaves people fighting over the last bit of go-juice using crossbows and football pads. But big enough to scare some of humanity into heeding the Dean’s warning that “Earth is just too small and fragile a basket for mankind to keep all its eggs in.”

So the asteroid strike that drowned South Africa was one bit of assumed future history among many that got us to the setting of Through Struggle, the Stars, a future in which the Earth’s nations are colonizing human-friendly worlds around nearby stars. It’s a future in which we haven’t achieved utopia nor slid into dystopia, but remained on the knife’s edge between them.

The assumptions necessary to engineer this setting – about events, ideas, technology, exobiology, you name it – all have second- and third-order implications that I had to consider. I found them to be maddeningly limiting at times. I couldn’t put habitable planets wherever I wanted; I needed to map out the nearby F, G and K stars where they were most likely to develop. Adhering to the laws of physics made it impossible to write the convenient scene in which two key characters 20 light-years apart are quickly brought together, or to employ sexy but silly things like manned space fighters, inertial dampeners or visible laser beams. (Getting the science right was much easier with the help of Winchell Chung’s incomparable web site, Atomic Rockets. Winch also served as the cover artist.)

But these constraints were also liberating. They kept the story grounded, and they required the characters to confront problems, not rely on some form of magic to get around them. They also implied strategies that nations would employ to advance their interests.

Fortunately, that includes building space navies.

Through Struggle, the Stars follows a junior American Space Force officer, Neil Mercer, as he shepherds a senior spy on a covert mission that throws them in the middle of a nascent war between Japan and China, Earth’s top two powers by most measures. Japan got there by being the first to really make it to space, in a major and permanent way, and China got there by being the economic powerhouse that it is. By 2139, the United States and Europe have declined, in a relative sense, settling into a reasonably comfortable tie for third.

But no one can figure out why the war is happening, or why the United States may be taking sides. What follows includes space battles, wormhole blockades and Marines dropping from orbit into enemy-held territory. It’s a story of how well-meaning leaders, believing they are acting in the interest of their nations, still manage to start wars, and it’s an examination of how wars are fought. Neil’s journey to new worlds forces him to confront what it means to be a good soldier, and what it means to be a good citizen.

This is my debut novel. It is a complete story but also the first of a series in this setting. I started writing it just as I finished a stint as a national security reporter in Washington, D.C., a job that had me there on 9-11 and took me on brief visits to Afghanistan and Iraq. The story interrogates some of the ambiguity I felt reporting on our wars during that time. The protagonists are sometimes heroic and sometimes screw up. They have distinct ideologies, pursue their own interests and sometimes disagree with one another. The antagonists are smart and learn from their mistakes. No meaningful choice is without its costs.


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The Really Big Idea: Shay Fabbro

I don’t typically dream in color. On the infrequent occasions that I remember dreams at all, I have to make do with more pedestrian B&W. There’s no question though, that dreams have been the motivation for many things. Shay Fabbro has a few things to say about how one particularly vivid dream led to writing.

I Had a Dream

I’m sure I’m not the first author to say this nor will I be the last. The idea for the Portals of Destiny series came from a dream I had while I was still in graduate school (I hold a PhD in human medical genetics). I have suffered from night terrors since I was a child. This particular dream I had was extremely vivid. We’re talking sounds, colors, smells.

In my dream, a man covered head to toe in sweat-stained robes is leading a camel through a desert. No green in sight, just a brown mess of sand and rock. Suddenly, the camel starts to tug at the rope, refusing to move forward. The annoyed man tries to force the camel, and of course as anyone knows who’s ever tried to force a camel to anything they don’t want to do…well, you get the point.

The ground begins to vibrate under the man’s feet and the camel goes ballistic at this point: snorting and pawing the air, finally ripping the rope out of the man’s hand. The man sees a large thing coming his way, with strange red and blue lights flashing, and it’s bigger than anything he’s ever seen. As it moves closer, the noise from its engines begins to become very painful. The ground shakes so badly the man can’t keep his footing. The machine begins to descend, unfurling its legs as it gets lower. The man’s eardrums rupture from the deafening roar of the engines. The last thing he sees is the enormous leg just before it crushes the life out of him.

As you can well imagine, I couldn’t stop thinking about this dream. Who was the guy and what in the world were the gigantic machines? Were they like transformers? Something different? My head reeled from all of the questions. Of course, there were no answers.

Except what I made up in my own mind.

The more questions I answered, the bigger this “dream” became. I talked to a friend of mine who worked in another lab and told her about it over lunch. She thought I should write the stuff down, see where it led me. The idea seemed ludicrous at the time. I mean, I was a research scientist, what the heck did I know about writing a novel?

Suffice to say, I did what she suggested. Before I knew it, I had the glimmer of an idea, something that was different, maybe a little overwhelming, but filled with promise. I embarked on a journey to create a series that was a blend of both scifi and fantasy. Think “Star Wars meets Stargate” and you’ll have an inkling what I mean. I wanted to blend technology, weapons and cool gadgets with prophecy and magic. What I ended up with was a book with twenty-two Chosen (prophecy says only they can destroy the Mekans), four Guardians (one for each planet to guide and protect the Chosen), and one fleet of mechanical beings called the Mekans, who roam the galaxy strip mining planets until they are completely destroyed.

Sound exciting or what?

Well, as I started writing the plot idea, I realized that what I had was much bigger than a single novel could contain. And thus the Portals of Destiny trilogy was born. The biggest part of this whole endeavor was creating the four planets that were home to the Chosen as well as the fifth planet that was home to the Guardians. I had to create five unique alien races and worlds, most of which had to be different from Earth. And on top of that, I had to give unique personalities and voices to all of the Chosen. I spent about eight months or so just designing my planets and the races that would inhabit them. I gave them cultures, histories, drew maps of the world, the villages and towns, and drew rudimentary drawings of the races themselves. My artist did a much better job and you can see his work on my website on the Artwork page. I had to really make sure I had each and every detail about my characters and their planets written down so I could refer back to it. It’s difficult, at least at the beginning, to keep them all straight.

The dream sequence that started it all actually ended up in the second book of the series, Shattered Destiny. I knew before I wrote a single sentence of the book that the cover would have to be the desert scene. My artist certainly didn’t disappoint!

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The Really Big Idea: Allison Dickson

I can see how vampires can be funny. Anyone who has ever seen the movie Vampyre can’t believe otherwise. (Strangely, I can’t find any evidence on the internet that that film ever existed. I will admit that I was very drunk when I saw it, but I did see it.) Creating funny vampires on film merely requires a lack of talent and a lot of money. On paper, it’s a different story. Here’s author Allison Dickson explaining how she came to write a story about a Vampire Mailman:

Vampires in Chagrin Falls

I never would have thought to sit down and write a funny vampire book if it hadn’t been for two things: my husband and Douglas Adams. The former is a huge fan of the latter, and it was because of this (and the certainty I was missing out on a whole treasure trove of his inside jokes) that I finally cracked open Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and proceeded to laugh my ass off.

I started to think about the concept of the book and how I could adapt it to my particular writing style. I love satire, so that part was going to be easy, but I needed a meaty target. I decided on vampires because they’re so damn ripe for it. There are so many well-established tropes and “rules” to bend, break, or adapt to whatever social commentary you want to make. I also wanted to do my own version of a “book within a book” that Adams did so well in Hitchhiker’s Guide, so I created Dexter Bloodgood’s Guide for Modern Vampires and included little snippets of it at the beginning of each chapter.

The next hurdle was to come up with characters. Louis Cross is the sort of “Arthur Dent” character, a hapless everyman who has all of these crazy things happening to him and is surrounded by eccentric people who are ultimately far more interesting than he is. Some people criticize this method of character building, but I think it works well for certain types of stories. The secret is that the main character has to know he’s boring. It also increased Louis’s sense of confusion and exasperation when all these nutty things started happening to him. Like becoming a vampire and discovering his doctor injected him with it. And then there is of course his lovable redneck intellectual best friend, Stan, who never seems surprised by much. And that’s a mean feat considering some of the shocking things that happen over the course of the book. You’ll have to read it to find out. 🙂

That brings me to what I think was the biggest hurdle with Scarlet Letters:  the plot. It’s frustrating to have this concept and these characters and these funny jokes, and then have no clue what to do with them. There had to be a hook to pull the conflict along, and try as I might, I couldn’t find it. It had to mean something, and it absolutely had to have a certain level of action. It was why, after starting the book, I ended up putting it down for a year and focus on something else. Sometimes that’s necessary. I don’t believe in forcing the issue. If you do, it’s a bit like stripping a screw.

When I did finally come back to it, I read what I had from the beginning, and the plot suddenly revealed itself to me. It was like one of those hidden 3D objects in a picture that you don’t see unless you’re staring at it a certain way. I wound up cutting out most of the first act and rewriting the second act. A few more pivotal scenes and character revelations later, Scarlet Letters: The Tale of the Vampire Mailman was born. And it was a particularly wonderful feeling, because it was my first completed novel. It underwent a lot of edits after that. Sometimes I feel like I could recite it word for word.

Anyway, I was lucky to have a lot of fans of the story. Enough to make me consider writing a sequel to it sometime later this year. And because I’ve had more practice writing books since then, I pretty much have the plot mapped out. At any rate, I can’t wait to meet my friends in Chagrin Falls again, and I hope more folks out there discover it.

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The Really Big Idea: Steve Umstead

Steve Umstead has been exceedingly generous in providing helpful advice to me in the short time that I have been above water as an author. So naturally, I asked him to help some more… But at least this time, we have the thin fiction that this is self promotion for him. The Gabriel story is the kind of thing that I always imagined that I would be writing when the time came. Space ships, action, conflict, and intrigue. Science fiction in the classic mode. Sometimes, an image in your mind can be a powerful thing even if you don’t realize its power at the time. The key is that if that picture in your head is true, then what you make of it at least stands a chance of hitting a chord with your readers. Three Gabriel books is perfect proof of that.

Gabriel’s Genesis

When Stephen approached me a few weeks back about participating in this modified version of The Really Big Idea, my first thought was, “I never had a really big idea,” so what could I possibly contribute? As I thought more and more about it, I realized that way back when, I did have a Really Big Idea about what became my debut novel, Gabriel’s Redemption. It’s just that way back when, I had no inkling that little scene floating around in my head would turn out to be an idea that blossomed the way it did.

You see, a little over a year ago, I had no story, nor plans to publish a novel. I had always wanted to write, since a very early age, but had never sat down and written, from start to finish. I had plenty of first chapters I thought were incredible; I edited them to death, and subsequently lost interest as real life moved in to take over my focus. So I never finished.

Flash forward past my 40th birthday (the year at which point I always thought I’d be rich and famous by…not quite) to October of 2010 and my plans to jump into the following month’s National Novel Writing Month challenge. I decided once and for all to sit down and finally finish a story, but I needed that Big Idea. The scene that had been floating in my head for decades (yep, decades…) reared its head, and Gabriel was born.

The scene is quite simple, actually, and at the point when I sat down to write it, I really had no clue what it would become. It’s a short scene: a disgraced Special Forces soldier, haunted by his past, dreaming of a happier day in his childhood with his family, brought out of the dream by people who want to bring him back to his present, with a chance for redemption. From that scene, I created the character and his background, his mission and its challenges, his flaws and his strengths. They all grew from that one tiny little chapter.

Once that book was completed, and published, and started to get good feedback, I looked back at that tiny little scene and realized I could do much more with it. And so a trilogy was born, the characters continued to be developed, the plot arc was extended, and came full circle with the final scene of the final book.

I get the question of, “where did you get the trilogy idea from?” a lot. And my honest answer is I don’t know, at least for that first scene. But as for the complete story, it all came from a guy in a ratty Jamaican hotel room, dreaming of better days. Go figure…

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The Really Big Idea: George O’Har

George O’Har has a special place in my heart, because he is the first actual, published author to talk to me and say anything besides, “You’re in my way.” In this week’s Big Idea post, George explains that The Thousand Hour Club is more than a road novel. An attempt to respiritualize the American experience is a bold endeavor, but one that has noble antecedents. Tolkien consciously envisioned the Lord of the Rings as a new myth for the West, a founding myth to recenter and correct modern life. A road novel might not aim for the same place in the pantheon but where are today’s lives of the saints? Perhaps a road novel is a good way to sustain – or having lost, recover – the faith in founding myths.

A Big Idea Disguised As a Small Idea, Or Isn’t It Pretty To Think So?

I first started writing The Thousand Hour Club over a decade ago. The plan for the novel was to base it on my own life experiences, a plan that involved using carefully selected moments of my life as a civilian and then move on to what happened, again using carefully selected moments, when I joined the Air Force. I did not think life in the military would be the focus of what I wrote, but that’s how it turned out. The story never did have much of a plot. Essentially, I was telling a tale about a basically good young man growing up in what I believed then and believe now is the best country in the world: America. My thinking was that if I told the story well-enough, and used humor and a strong central character as ‘literary devices,’ much like Twain and Joyce used similar motifs, readers would come along. Editors and agents in New York, of course, never much went for my approach. But why they didn’t is a topic for another time.

Over the years, I rewrote the manuscript, start to finish, seven or eight times. I did the usual things writers do. Then one day, at lunch with a Jesuit friend of mine, we got to talking about how America was losing contact with its “unifying symbols,” and that a nation separated from the clarifying power of what had made it great in the first place might well be doomed. In the middle of this conversation—I remember it to this day—I was struck by the idea that that was exactly what I was attempting to do in The Thousand Hour Club: reconnect America, through the peregrinations of its ironic and likeable 1st-person narrator, to its symbolic bases. In short, I was building a bridge to the past. Important to note here is that the narrator is not aware of this; he feels himself changing, being worked on, but he never articulates it.

What do I mean? The novel starts out in Fort Lee, NJ; it ends at the Acropolis. The town of Fort Lee is named after a Revolutionary War Fort. The Acropolis was in addition to being a sacred place also a fort, a military installation. My narrator ends up in Greece. In thinking about symbols, this becomes important since the idea of Greece exerted enormous influence on the Founding Fathers. You can see it in their writing and thinking, and in the buildings they designed. Now, I wasn’t quite using symbols the way Melville and Hawthorne did, but I was using them. This doesn’t happen much in contemporary writing for the simple reason that most American contemporary writers have completely forgotten about the symbols that used to mean so much to us. Like everyone else, writers assume what we have will always be there. They have forgotten the idea that what we have needs to be fertilized and maintained.

Here’s another example. Socrates is practically a character in the book. The Socratic notion of the primacy of the unseen wends it ways through the novel, through moments as mundane as heartbreak, or as serious as a death in the family. The very last scene in the novel has the narrator leaning against a tree in the Agora. He hears two Greek boys running. One of them hollers to the other, “Socrates! Socrates!” I won’t beat this into the ground, but this is a lovely solution to a problem: how can I get readers to believe Socrates is as vitally alive and important today as he was in 5th century Athens? By having the narrator hear his name now in the exact same place his name was spoken centuries ago when he was teaching.

I was strongly influenced by Twain and Kerouac, so it will come as no surprise that The Thousand Hour Club is a road book. On the Road can be seen in a variety of ways, but I tend to see the novel as Kerouac’s attempt, through Sal and Dean, to respiritualize America. Kerouac uses Buddhism. So do I, as well as Christianity and Islam. Kerouac, and not just in On the Road, uses elevation as a symbol for awareness (like Mann). The notion of moving characters up and down—on mountains, in aircraft, crossing bridges—is how this idea shows up in The Thousand Hour Club, which is very much and deliberately a spiritual novel.

Now, many folks who read the book will glide right past this idea of reconnecting to America’s symbolic past. Readers would not be likely to overlook the spiritual angle, since nature and the idea of sacred places and spirituality per se (the presence of three major religions) run through the novel like a river. Anyway, I just started out telling a story. What I ended up with, I hope, is something better and more enduring. How this happened is almost entirely by accident. I didn’t deliberately set out to do any such thing. I wanted to make readers laugh and feel good.

Yet when I looked back at my work in progress after lunch with my Jesuit friend I realized the ingredients were all there. I just hadn’t seen them. All it took to emphasize them was a bit of tweaking. So when people say they think Herman Melville set out in Moby Dick to write a symbolic tale of a ship that stands for America, and a whale that probably represents nothingness, I wonder. What are the odds that he simply wanted to tell a story based, to some extent, on his own life and travels? And that later on, when he was reviewing the situation, he understood that he had accomplished something bigger. Hey; I’m just guessing. But I’m looking at Melville as a writer. I’m not a critic trying to demonstrate my importance.

And finally, a basic problem any writer has in putting together a book is how to make it deeper (if deepening is your aim). What experience has taught me is that this deepening process is only available to the writer through rewriting and revising. It is not something that can be jammed into a novel. You can’t say, I’m going to write a novel about Truth, Justice, Racism, or Love. If you’ve told an accurate story, gotten the details right, you may when you’re panning for these deeper things (Truth, Love et. al.) actually find them. The deeper stuff rises to the surface. It comes up naturally. It is an effect, a result. It is almost never an input.

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