Why Dinosaurs?

The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milan
Written by Victor Milán

When I was discussing possible topics for this post, my pal Larry Hays said, “‘Why dinosaurs?’ Duh—dinosaurs.”

Yeah. Pretty much.

I love dinosaurs. I’ve loved ’em since I was an infant in the 1950s, when one of the first books my Mom read to me from was The Golden Treasury of Natural History. Many of its brightly-colored pictures captivated baby me, but none more than those of dinosaurs.

Dinosaurs have been kicking the public in its imagination at least since 1831, when English paleontologist and obstetrician Gideon Mantell published a paper called “The Age of Reptiles,” based on pioneering work done by Georges Cuvier, Mary Anning, and William Buckland on mysterious monster fossils that had been turning up for years. Sir Richard Owen named the taxon Dinosauria in 1842, helping Dinosaur Mania snowball so much a that in 1853 Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins pitched a gala New Year’s Eve dinner inside a sculpture of a (mistakenly quadrupedal) Iguanodon he was creating for London’s Crystal Palace.

In the late 19th century US the rivalry between Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope to find, name, and publicize dinosaur species out west got so crazy it was dubbed the “Bone Wars.”

The public love for dinosaurs ebbed and flowed throughout the 20th Century. But it never got killed off, even by the dominant paradigm that they were inert, cold-blooded, tail-dragging lumps, some so huge they had to live in water to support their own body weight—some even so dumb they needed helper brains in their butts to help work their hind-sections. I was taught that as a child, and believed it for years.

It was all wrong.

The 1970s revolutionized dinosaurs, with the then-heretical realization that dinos were really active, vigorous, and largely warm-blooded. Jurassic Park’s runaway 1993 success popularized that vision, and the dinosaur love has built ever since.

Nowadays, thanks to technological advances in detecting, handling, and analyzing dinosaur remains, we know more species, and more about them, than ever before. We’re in Golden Age of Dinosaur Paleontology, learning things about their physiology and behavior that, when I was a child, it was “known” we never could learn.

That thrills me. Millions of other people, too.

So what strange secret do these ancient animals possess?

Real. World. Monsters.

We love scary thrills. We love monsters, from the physically smaller, more intimate threats posed by vampires and zombies, to lumbering natural-disaster-sized daikaiju like Godzilla. Who, like so many of his Fifties Lizard Fear Cinema kindred, started life as a pseudo-dinosaur.

Dinosaurs, and the bizarre flying and swimming reptiles who shared the Mesozoic Earth with them, were monsters: fabulous, alien creatures, some literally monstrous in size and sometimes menace, who actually existed.

Some people don’t like the New Dinosaurs. They don’t think they’re as scary as the old model. And what’s with the feathers? They’re just big birds!

(Not really. But birds are dinosaurs. I love that too. Then again, I also always loved birds.)

It’s okay to like what you like. But here’s the deal: I spent way longer believing in the old model than most… and I say: do you really think the snarling monster in the picture is less intimidating than a guy in a rubber suit?

Even if he’s covered in feathers, you’re gonna tell me you wouldn’t be scared of a forty-foot long meat-eating dinosaur animal that weighs more than a Humvee and has teeth the size of axe blades?

Careful not to trip on your cape, there, Superman.

Dinosaurs: they’re monsters! Who were real! And we can even meet (and eat) their less-threatening descendants! How is that not cool?

I love dinosaurs. You too, I hope.

That’s why dinosaurs.

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Follow Victor Milán on Twitter at @VictorMilan, on Facebook, or visit him online.

The Trauma of Time Travel

Time Salvager by Wesley Chu
Written by Wesley Chu

My job as a novelist requires that I write books. Inspiration be damned. It’s great to have inspiration, but it’s not a job requirement.

That said, storytelling is my only worthy contribution to society. I’m basically unemployable. I have resigned myself to the fact that in the zombie apocalypse, I’m the guy they’ll use as a decoy while the doctor, soldier, farmer, lawyer, and Labrador retriever escape to safety.

It is no surprise, however, that I am often asked “What’s the inspiration for your book?”

Whenever I see that question, my brain melts. Just a little. The honest answer is I want to eat and pay my mortgage and my dog needs a new sweater. Part of that statement is a lie; Airedale Terriers never need sweaters. Remember that, folks. Airedales wearing sweaters have poser parents.

However, in the case of Time Salvager, I’m going to make an exception. I love telling this book’s origin story because it comes from an experience that changed my life.

I warn you, it’s kind of sad.

The idea came from an article I read about a South African photo-journalist named Kevin Carter. He took a very iconic photo (warning: graphic) of a child in the Sudan Famine crawling toward an aid station. There’s a vulture behind the child, just hopping along, waiting for him to die. At the time, Kevin thought it was his job to record the events but not to intervene. He took the picture and left. He won a Pulitzer for that photograph and then committed suicide a few months later. Some of the facts have been subsequently contested, but that was the version I read at the time.

It’s the kind of story that stays with you. Sometime later, I dreamt that I was a time traveler on the Titanic. I had jumped in a few days prior and my mission was to steal the Hope Diamond. I was supposed to steal the diamond just as the ship was sinking, so that all traces of my activities would be washed away by the disaster. In the dream, I spent days interacting and befriending the crew and passengers as I tried to locate the diamond, knowing full well they were all doomed to die when the ship sank. They were all dead-people walking.

But, it wasn’t my job to intervene.

And I didn’t.

I woke up right as the ship sank (not sure if I ever found the diamond), knowing all those people were going to die and I couldn’t do anything to help them. I experienced an overwhelming sense of sadness. It was a short jump from there to Time Salvager. Jumping back in time, before disasters, to retrieve important items, seemed like a great use of time travel without actually changing history.

I knew there were costs though. There had to be. Not the cost to society, or to the laws of energy, or to the integrity of the timeline, but the cost to the person who had to watch and observe and do nothing. Watching and being unable to help had to be suffocating and traumatic. I knew then that I had questions that needed to be answered.

What were those emotional and mental costs?

What happens when those costs become too great and the time traveler decides to intervene?

What happens when the time laws are broken?

They’re questions I had to answer for myself, to give me peace. I hope you want to know the answers as much as I did.

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Follow Wesley Chu on Twitter at @wes_chu, on Facebook, or visit him online.

Punk is Dead, Long Live Punk

The Unnoticeables by Robert Brockway
Written by Robert Brockway

Atmosphere is everything.

Well, it’s most everything.

Well, it’s definitely a thing, anyway.

Hi, I’m Robert. I wrote The Unnoticeables, a very strange book about angels and monsters and faceless psychopaths and the hidden code behind the universe. I did this because I don’t know how to do normal human things like build furniture or mortgage.

Am I using that right? Is that a verb, or what?

I think that’s a very important step in writing a book: Not being able to do other things.

Another very important step is nailing down the atmosphere. The first half of The Unnoticeables takes place in the punk scene of New York City, 1977. Some folks think it’s easier to set your novel in a real place, and maybe they’re right—but NYC, 1977, may as well be a spaceport orbiting Jupiter. It doesn’t exist anymore. All the iconic punk venues featured in the book have either fizzled out, exploded like an M-80 in a beer can, or worse: slowly bloated, grew a ponytail, and started catering to tourists. The Bowery is a great place to get a cappuccino now; it used to be a great place to get stabbed.

So I couldn’t just hop on a plane to get a sense of how my setting actually moved and breathed. I needed a time machine. Luckily, I had one: Music.

In the course of writing the book, I have assembled several massive playlists, ordered by time, by place, by the attitude of the character I was writing, or just by some drunken impulse that I no longer recall.

The younger version of one of my protagonists, Carey, just wants to drink and have sex. He’s only good at one of those things. You can guess which. He really doesn’t want to be involved in my plot. He doesn’t want to see angels, or fight faceless maniacs in the sewers, but they keep messing with his friends and he needs those to bum beer money off of. Young Carey is all the bouncy, goofy grins of The Ramones. He’s the tattered arrogance of Richard Hell, the slurred fight in the MC5, and the unapologetic immaturity of The Dictators.

Flash forward thirty years, and Carey is now an old man. He’s homeless, living on the streets of LA. The decades-long fight against these inconceivable monsters has claimed every friend he’s ever had, and what was once a big, never-ending party has long since devolved into alcoholism. Older Carey is the barroom dirge of Rocket From The Tombs. He’s the aimless fury of The Damned, and the wry, world-weary cynicism of Gang of Four.

Ugh, listen to me ramble like I know what I’m talking about. I was born three years after the whole scene imploded. I’m not an expert on New York City, classic punk, or even music in general. In fact, I’m not even very good at being a fan. I can’t list every member of every band I listen to, where their best album was recorded, or who mixed it. I don’t even read the liner notes. The only thing I know about music is that I can’t write without it. My first business expense was a damn fine pair of headphones, which I wear for twelve hours a day, every day.

And that’s because for atmosphere—for vibe, for attitude, for feeling how a dead place moved back when it was alive—nothing beats the beat. If you can feel that beat in this book—if it smells like stale beer, sounds like cheap guitars played poorly but with great enthusiasm, and reading too many chapters at once gives you a vicious hangover—then I’ve done my job.

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Follow Robert Brockway on Twitter at @Brockway_LLC, on Facebook, or visit him online.

What Roleplaying Teaches Writers

tor_Lord-of-Runes
Written by James L. Sutter

As the editor in charge of Pathfinder Tales—the Tor and Paizo novel line that tie into the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game—as well as the author of two of the books myself, I spend a lot of time talking with people about the boons and challenges of writing fiction tied into a game. But what’s often easy to overlook in these conversations is just how much RPGs can teach us about the craft of writing.

The most important thing we learn from pen-and-paper roleplaying games is that anyone can be a storyteller. Books, movies, TV, video games—all of these can inspire a would-be writer, but the audience’s role is still fundamentally passive. These media are fun, but do nothing to fill the chasm separating us from creative “professionals”: the gulf between “Wow, that was cool,” and “I want to do what they did!” At the end of the day, we’re still standing outside the dream factory looking in.

tor_Redemption-EngineRoleplaying games burst right through that wall, Kool-Aid-Man style. By their very nature, RPGs force audience members to take control, to see themselves as storytellers. RPGs are improv, and even the best-written adventure module is still only a stage for the participants. Creativity is mandatory, and as people game, they come to identify as creative. I can’t count the number of professional authors I’ve met who were drawn into writing by the urge to create more elaborate backstories for their characters, or settings for their game, or journals of their parties’ adventures. Gaming breeds writers like salad bars breed bacteria.

A writer can gain much more from gaming than simple confidence. By running games—and being lucky enough to work on Dungeon magazine and help create Pathfinder—I got an invaluable education in crafting worlds, plots, and characters.

Designing your own setting is one of the great joys of RPGs, and packed with lessons for writing science fiction and fantasy. It’s where I learned that I could combine tropes from vastly different real-world cultures to make societies that feel brand new yet relatable. That magic without logically consistent laws is boring, and that the constraints those rules impose are half the fun. That even your purest “good” gods or nations are more interesting when they have flaws, and vice versa. That money and geography determine your national borders, and that rivers should always flow downhill and together rather than splitting apart. (You’d be amazed how many fantasy maps ignore that fact.)

tor_Liars-IslandWriting an adventure is excellent training for plotting a novel. It needs all the same elements—the hooks and clues that draw the protagonists in, the rising action, the climactic battle—but comes with the added challenge that you don’t get to control the heroes. You’re writing a script that could change wildly at any moment if the characters zig when you expected them to zag—not unlike adapting a novel outline to fit unexpected character developments or editorial requests.

As for characters—well, they’re the heart of roleplaying, aren’t they? And as every roleplayer learns, the more you know about a character’s background and personality, the easier it is to get into their heads and create realistic reactions to any situation.

Fiction and roleplaying games are just two different styles of storytelling, so whether you’re rolling dice or pounding a keyboard, you’re exercising the same muscle. Each makes us better at the other.

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Follow James L. Sutter on Twitter at @jameslsutter, on Facebook, or visit him online.

A Writer’s Dirty Little Secret

The Devil's Only Friend by Dan Wells
Written by Dan Wells

The dirty little secret is that I don’t write for you. Sorry. I think that most authors are the same, or at least similar: we love it when you read our books, and we certainly hope that you like them, but in the end we’re not really writing them for approval, and we’re not writing them for fame, and we’re certainly not writing them for money. There are easier and far more efficient ways of getting all of those things.

When we write, or at least when I write, I do it because there’s a story inside my brain that I love so much I can’t not tell it. There are characters I want to learn more about; there are situations and problems and thorny, complicated, impossible choices that I want to force an imaginary person to grapple with. I tell stories because I love to tell stories, and thank you from the bottom of my heart for reading them, but even if I were the last person on the planet I’d still be writing them, using whatever lonely writing device managed to survive the apocalypse. I write for me, is what I’m saying, and that makes me the first and toughest audience I have to deal with.

Which makes it tricky when my editors start asking for more books in a series I consider finished.

The John Cleaver trilogy—or as I’ve had to start calling it, The First John Cleaver Trilogy—came out about six years ago, and people liked it, but I finished it and moved on to other things. I wrote a mind-twisty thriller about schizophrenia, and a post-apocalyptic YA series, and a book about cloning that isn’t out yet, and some tie-in fiction, and some horror shorts, and a thing about a Mormon pioneer superhero, and the point here is that I moved on. When you write what you’re excited about, and you’re an easily excitable person, you end up piling your plate with a little bit of everything from the Genre Buffet. People kept asking about John Cleaver, asking if I ever intended to write more, and my answer was always the same: “I love that character, but I’m done with him. He has completed his arc.”

I’ve lived in Germany, in Stuttgart, for the last two years, and I absolutely loved it, in part because it gave me a chance to talk to new people and see the way they acted and reacted to things—very different reactions, obviously, than Americans would have. This helped me to see my own life in a way I hadn’t before, and that got me thinking—I guess you could say that I looked at myself as a character in a story, in a place and a situation that weren’t originally part of the outline. It changed my story fundamentally though I remained true to who I am.

Those experiences made me think about John Cleaver, and how a wild new shake-up to his life might change certain parts of him while leaving his core identity untouched. I began to wonder about new arcs that his character might take, and about different challenges that he might face, and all of a sudden I had it—an amazing new idea that I couldn’t let go of. I knew I could write a new John Cleaver trilogy, but more importantly, I was excited to write it. I was thrilled. I called my German editor and asked if he might be interested in another John Cleaver series, and his response was to email me the cover he’d already mocked up for it, with a title and everything. It seemed safe to say that I wasn’t the only one excited by the idea, so I contacted my agent and my American editor and we got the ball rolling, and now it’s finally here: The Second John Cleaver Trilogy. I think of it as The Last John Cleaver Trilogy, but I guess the one thing I’ve learned is to never say never, right?

So what, you might be asking, is the new book about? I don’t want to spoil anything, but here’s a quick teaser: in the first trilogy John was alone, fighting creatures he called demons in his own home town. The new trilogy starts one year later with John on an FBI kill team, which might sound like a good step up, but come on: if there’s one thing John hates more than monsters, it’s authority figures telling him what to do. The teenage sociopath does not play nicely with others, and the monsters they’re hunting do not take kindly to being hunted….

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Follow Dan Wells on Twitter at @TheDanWells, on Facebook, or visit him online.

Flying with the Real Fae

Long Black Curl by Alex Bledsoe
Written by Alex Bledsoe

My Tufa novels, of which the upcoming Long Black Curl is the third, are all about music. They’re about other things, too, of course, but a central theme is how music touches people, affects them and brings them together. But I never expected that my novels would, in fact, bring me together with a tribe of musicians that could’ve stepped right out of those pages.

In 2013, I was a presenter at the Pagan Unity Festival (a.k.a. PUF) at a state park outside Nashville. Like many such festivals, there was a lot of music, including two appearances by a band I’d never heard of: Tuatha Dea.

I’ll admit to a bias here: some pagan-themed music strikes me as a bit overt, wearing its heart (and environmental concerns, and European folklore, and feminist agenda, and so forth) on its sleeve to its overall detriment. So I’d planned to skip the concert that first night and rest in my cabin.

Imagine my surprise when, from the pavilion down the hill, I heard a musical roar like nothing I expected. And I was even more surprised when I recognized the song as a snarling cover of the Cranberries’ “Zombie.”

That was my introduction to Tuatha Dea, a band that, as I said, sounded and looked as if they’d stepped right out of one of my Tufa novels. They’re an eight-piece ensemble that rotates on the instruments, with an emphasis on heavy drums. Their performance that night was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen Springsteen multiple times. They completely blew my idea of pagan music out of the water. I also was lucky enough to become friends with them, and to enthusiastically swap copies of my novels for their CDs.

Then came the biggest surprise: a call from band leader/songwriter Danny Mullikin, asking if he could write songs based on my Tufa novels.

I’m pretty sure my response boiled down to, “Yes, please.” Danny was kind enough to keep me updated on the process, sharing lyrics and early tracks with me, but I deliberately gave him no input; I wanted to be surprised like everyone else by the final product, which the band titled Tufa Tales: Appalachian Fae.

And I was. I mean, I knew the songs would be good, and that the band would perform them well. But the surprise was how thoroughly they captured the atmosphere I strove to create in my novels. Feel is always an intangible quality, almost impossible to really describe or copy, but they clearly got it.

They did three tracks titled after my first three novels, and so far have two videos, for the songs “Long Black Curl” and “Wisp of a Thing.” (If you look very closely in the “Wisp” video, you might spot this author for about one and a half seconds.) They also do a rocking version of the classic folk tune “The Five Nights’ Drunk,” which they call “Granny’s Bedtime Tonic.” And there’s a wonderful instrumental called “Dance of the Tufa.”

I’m proud to be associated with this band, and I’m incredibly flattered that they felt so connected to my work. Creating art is always fun, but inspiring it may be the biggest rush of all.

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Follow Alex Bledsoe on Twitter at @AlexBledsoe, on Facebook, or visit him online.

A Young Lady’s Time Travel Guide to Regency England

A School for Unusual Girls by Kathleen Baldwin
Written by Kathleen Baldwin

Part 1

So you think you’d like to travel back in time to the Regency era? You’ve read about all those dashing dukes and handsome viscounts and you’re all agog to jump into a time machine. Very well, but you’ll need this handy guide.

Ask yourself this question: are you unexceptional enough?

You heard me correctly. Unexceptional. During the Regency era it was a high compliment for a young lady to be deemed unexceptional. The Beau Monde, the beautiful people of fashionable society, tended to dress alike and behave like the rest of the flock.

Woe unto those who didn’t conform.
ThreeGraces
I’ve written a book about young ladies who did not fit into the Regency mold, A School for Unusual Girls. Take it from me; it did not go well for exceptional young women. They were shipped off to schools to a reform their manners. Rumors of harsh punishments and torturous training devices at these schools abounded among the Beau Monde. So watch your step!

First and foremost, you must not stray too far from the norm. It simply is not done, especially if a young lady is still of marriageable age. One mustn’t be too tall, too short, too brainy, or too brightly dressed.

The gentle reader inquires, “What about turquoise blue?”

For a ball? Are you mad? Subtlety, my dear, subtlety is the key. Picture me fanning myself vigorously to show my agitation.

Speaking of fans…

Beware the Danger of Fans

Do not, I repeat, do not purchase a fan to take on your journey back in time. That would be risky, indeed.

There is an entire language of the fan that every proper young lady must study before she is licensed to wield one of these dangerous devices.

This is absolutely essential training. Otherwise you may think you’re simply fanning to cool yourself down, but the gentleman across the ballroom thinks you are signally him for an assignation in the garden. You flirtatious vixen! And should you accidentally tap the ruddy thing against your cheek, oh heavens above, you’ve just told the gentleman that you are in love with him.

What Clothes Should You Bring?

Dress Changed for Part 1 blogAs mentioned earlier; no strong colors, the paler your ensemble, the better. Consider bringing a flimsy white cotton or silk nightgown. Tie a length of pale pink ribbon under the bust and it might serve as an everyday gown.

In the space of a few years, British aristocracy went from dressing in intricately engineered, highly ornate gowns like the ones Marie Antoinette used to wear, to dressing in simplistic Grecian gowns as did Empress Josephine. This might have had something to do with the guillotine lopping off the heads of so many ladies who wore those big gaudy gowns.

It is a trifle odd that Regency folk were so strict about the morals of their young ladies but then dressed them in nearly transparent muslin reminiscent of nightclothes. One Season it was all the rage to dampen one’s chemise (underwear) so that more of the young lady’s, ahem, charms might show. Unfortunately, that year turned out to be a brutally cold winter. Many women died of pneumonia and other lung ailments and so the craze ended abruptly.

I’ll return with more help for you brave time travelers. Until then good luck on your journey! And may you fall blissfully love with the most eligible handsome duke or earl at the ball. If Regency literature is any indication, there seems to be an abundance of the handsome devils.

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Is it Okay if I Cook You Slowly?

Trial of Intentions by Peter Orullian
Written by Peter Orullian

I learned the phrase “Violating Your Expectations” in college, when studying Shakespeare, and it’s stuck with me ever since. It’s the idea of taking a reader someplace they’re not anticipating. With my series, The Vault of Heaven, that was always my plan: To begin in a warm place of familiarity and comfort, and then apply heat enough to boil you. Kind of like that thing where the crab is placed in a pot of room temperature water. It sits, content. And before it knows what’s happening, the water is boiling, cooking the crab.

I started down that path with my first book, The Unremembered. Now, in my second book, Trial of Intentions, I turn up the heat. And there are a number of things in the book that I think equate to cranking the dial on the stove.

First might be the music. In book one, it’s clear there’s a music magic system. But it’s not understood or used much. In Trial of Intentions, that changes. In spades. Not only does a character use that ability with savage intent and results, but she also goes to the one place where she can study it. Take it further. These were some of my favorite scenes to write, as I found in them a dark beauty.

And, in keeping with the “violate your expectations” theme, there’s this whole science thing that begins to amp up in book two. This is where readers who think they have one of my main characters pegged as a farm boy are in for some violation. I’m a bit of an amateur astronomer. And I use it as a leap point for creating an entire city dedicated to science and populated with colleges of astronomy, physics, mathematics, philosophy, and cosmology. Like the music scenes, these were a blast to write, and also where the lion’s share of my research time was spent.

Of course, what’s an epic fantasy without war, right? And I give you some. In fact, there’s an entire culture dedicated to what it calls “gearworks”—the building of siege engines and the like. But then, I had this counter notion: What if one of the main characters decides that it would be best to avert war? While some people are building alliances and escalating to war on a grand scale, others are employing every means possible to stop the war before it begins. I found the juxtaposition of these opposing motivations a fun challenge to write.

I’ve also spent quite a bit of time on my magic systems. So far, there are five. But most of that time was devoted to creating what I call “governing dynamics.” Each magic system ladders up to a set of unifying principles. It made sense to me that this world would have something akin to mechanical laws for magic, laws that different cultures would tap into in different ways. The various cultures might not even call those laws by the same name. But readers will see that all these different magic systems tie into something I call Resonance. I think it gives the world a kind of coherence.

Finally, it’s always been the case that the world of my series is a harsh place. So much so that there are those who find refuge in self-slaughter. This is only lightly touched upon in The Unremembered. But in Trial of Intentions, suicide steps into the glare of the spotlight. It lays near the center of motivation for at least one of my characters, who’s seen it up close and too often.

Like I said, this was always part of the story. But when I finished writing book two, I realized the resonance of it was stronger than I’d planned. Or maybe that’s just my read of it, because I had a friend recently make that choice. The book doesn’t linger overlong on the topic, but I hope it gives some emotional context for a few of the characters and their relationships.

In the end, however, some carnage is inevitable. Battles happen. Some involve skills of science. Some involve swords. And some, music magic.

All of which is to say, I think Trial of Intentions turns the gas up to get the pot boiling. Cook you good.

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Follow Peter Orullian on Twitter at @PeterOrullian, on Facebook, or visit him online.

Pirate’s Booty: Black Market in the French Quarter

Pirate's Alley by Suzanne Johnson
Written by Suzanne Johnson

In Pirate’s Alley, the new book in the Sentinels of New Orleans series, the pirate in the title refers to the undead historical pirate Jean Lafitte. The charismatic French smuggler led a kingdom of a thousand ruffians south of New Orleans in the early 1800s and played a pivotal role in defeating the British at the Battle of New Orleans exactly 200 years ago this past January.

What Jean Lafitte likely did NOT do, however, was lollygag in that narrow passageway in New Orleans’ French Quarter we know today as Pirates Alley. (The real alley has no apostrophe in its name, New Orleans never having been a place to dwell on such frivolities as punctuation.)

When the city was laid out and the original St. Louis Cathedral built in 1720, an alleyway was left open to provide a shortcut from the Place d’Armes at the front of the cathedral to Royal Street, behind it. Today’s Pirates Alley is still about 600 feet long, 16 feet wide, and covered with cobblestones installed in 1831.

One New Orleans legend insists this alley was a popular spot for pirates to hang out, which is how it got its name. Another insists that Jean Lafitte, who controlled black market goods flowing into New Orleans with which he’d undercut the local merchants, would conduct business in the alley, right under the merchants’ noses.

A third legend says it was in this alley that Jean Lafitte met with General Andrew Jackson in late 1814 to make the deal that placed pirates fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with the outnumbered American soldiers to fend off the British.

The first two stories are unlikely.

For one thing, the alley is mere yards from the Cabildo (now the Louisiana State Museum), built in the 1700s to house state government. Here, the Louisiana Purchase took place and, in the Place D’Armes (now Jackson Square) in front of it, criminals such as pirates were hanged.

Pirates Alley is also next to the site of the “Calaboose,” an infamous prison where—you guessed it—pirates got locked up and held in squalid conditions, often only emerging when it was time to swing from the hangman’s noose.

So the legends that the alley, which would have been an unpaved strip of mud in Jean Lafitte’s day, was a pirate hangout? I don’t think so.

Pirates Alley does have significance to our favorite French pirate, however. Jean Lafitte’s older brother Pierre, his partner in the family business, was arrested and imprisoned there in 1814 for smuggling and piracy. Pierre, quite a few years older than Jean, suffered greatly in the harsh conditions of the Calaboose for months while Jean tried to secure his release; he’s believed to have suffered a stroke while chained to the wall of his cell.

Did Jean Lafitte and Andrew Jackson strike a deal in the dark alley? Probably not. Jackson was outraged at being forced to make a deal with the “hellish banditti” he thought Lafitte to be, and Lafitte thought Jackson was a pompous blowhard. Sources seem to indicate that most of their negotiations were conducted in writing.

Still, shortly after Jean agreed to provide the general with intelligence on the British (who were also trying to make a deal with him), Pierre Lafitte made a sudden “escape” from the Calaboose.

To get from the prison to the Mississippi River, on which he likely fled the city, Pierre and his brother would have passed through—where else?—Pirates Alley.

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Follow Suzanne Johnson on Twitter at @suzanne_johnson, on Facebook, or visit her blog.

A Spectrum of Worlds

A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab
Written by V. E. Schwab

Setting.

To most writers, it’s a backdrop, to some even an afterthought, but to me, it’s always been a character. Setting is one of the very first—if not THE first—thing that comes to me when I’m writing a book. It’s not that I don’t care about the other pieces—the people and the plot and what have you—it’s that for me, as a writer and a reader, setting IS one of the most important aspects, and it’s always integral to the plot.

Sometimes, its importance is obvious, as in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, in which a second London lurks under the surface of the first, or Andy Weir’s The Martian, set entirely on the surface of Mars. It might be a time as well as a place, as in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, in which Ursula is continuously reliving the years leading up to World War II. Other times, it’s built into the fabric of the story in other ways, like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, set across a Canadian expanse after an apocalyptic disease. Or perhaps it creates a framework for the plot, as with Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train. Whatever the form it takes, and whatever the framework is fantasy, thriller, dystopian, historical, the fact remains that a good setting is a living, breathing element, a character all its own.

My newest book, A Darker Shade of Magic, houses not one but FOUR versions of London (Grey, Red, White, and Black), and each one takes a different shape: Grey the mundane world, Red the magical empire, White the wasteland, and Black the source of all power.

In essence, A Darker Shade of Magic—or ADSoM for short—gave me a chance to turn my setting into not only a character, but an entire supporting cast. Through the four iterations of London, bound together by only a name, I was able to explore not only time, but also space, and the ways that different actions shape the world in which they happen. The color terms and relative absence/presence of magic are not the only things that set the Londons apart. Though each ones occupies the same geographical footprint, with the Thames (or the Isle, or the Siljt) at its heart, each city was inspired by a different part of the world, a different aesthetic, a different breed of empire. The worlds sit, layered like pages of paper in a book.

Grey London, which you could call the template, is based on the world as we know it, modeled on early 19th century England, with its smoke-clogged streets and its ailing mad king. If there was magic once, it has been forgotten.

The crown jewel of the worlds, Red London, features a plush, eastern motif, full of spires and night markets, spices and luxury. Here magic thrives, woven into every part of life, respected by some, worshiped by others, and used by all.

Its neighbor, White London, a world once more powerful than Red, is now slowing dying, starved out by the magic it tries to control. It has the arctic air of the far north, ruled a pair of wolf-like twins, Astrid and Athos.

And Black London, well, no one knows. The site of a magical catastrophe, and sealed off from the other worlds, it’s the city known only through bedtime stories and nursery rhymes. Until now.

The characters are as much a product of their setting as anything else. The main characters, Kell and Lila, come from different Londons. Kell, a magician with the rare ability to move between worlds, belongs to the elite and fantastical Red London, while Lila has grown up as a street rat-turned thief in the magic-less Grey world. To them we add the Danes, the rulers of White London, desperate to hold on to power, and their servant, Holland, bound not by will, but by magic.

I’m a firm believer that when crafting a story, the world—or worlds—in which it’s set must come before the characters. It must shape them. For what are people, if not the product of their environments? A setting is wasted when it simply exists to fill the space behind the action. Similarly, when the characters and the world in which they live are bound by nothing more than convenience.

The characters of ADSoM are diverse, and so are the settings they occupy. When you step into the book, you step into several worlds, each one different, but all connected, as tangled with each other as the kings and queens, magicians, smugglers, and thieves who roam them. They are a strange cast, my Londons, but I can’t wait for you to meet them all.

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Follow V. E. Schwab on Twitter at @veschwab, on Facebook, or visit the magical Londons online.