Category Archives: Scribe Craft

An Oath of Dogs – Interview with Wendy N. Wagner

Today, I have the privilege to chat with Wendy N. Wagner about her new book, An Oath of Dogs (Angry Robot, July 2017.) For those who aren’t familiar, Wendy is managing editor of the Hugo Award-winning Lightspeed magazine, as well as the author of two novels set in the Pathfinder RPG world, Skinwalkers and Starspawn.

CC: Welcome! An Oath of Dogs was released earlier this month. Congratulations! Give us your elevator pitch for the novel.

WW: An Oath of Dogs is the story of a woman who moves to a new planet only to discover that her boss has been murdered—and it looks like their company did it to cover up a much larger crime. It also features a heroic therapy dog, lots of alien plants and creatures, a sect of neo-Mennonite farmers, a mysterious pack of wild dogs, and a botanist with a love of beer.

CC: Sounds like a lot of cool hooks for readers. What was the nugget that started the story in your head? A character, scene, or event?

WW: I had an idea about wild dog packs that made me want to explore the relationship between people and dogs. I kept playing around with the idea, and it grew into part of a much more complicated story about the way we explore and develop new places and how we treat the landscape around us.

CC: How long did it take to write? Do you have a normal writing time, or do you fit it in when you can?

WW: This book took a long time to write! Maybe two and a half or three years, even. I got the idea for the story while I was working on my first Pathfinder tie-in novel, so I didn’t get a chance to really start working on it for a while. Then I got hired to write a second novel, so that slowed it down even more.

I try to write in the morning, after my daughter has gone to school and my husband has gone to work. I walk the cats, drink some coffee, and then write for an hour or two before I do my freelance work.

CC: So you’ve told us who the protagonist is, but tell us about a side character you love.

WW: Oh, it’s so hard to choose—I wound up falling in love with all the side characters! Probably my favorite is Olive Whitley, a young girl who befriends the main character. Olive loves wandering in the woods and studying nature, where she harvests plants to sell to local artists to help her family make ends meet. She’s just a really, really good kid. A little weird, but good.

CC: Which question about An Oath of Dogs do you wish someone would ask? Ask and answer it!

WW: Well, this is extremely nerdy, but I wish someone would ask about the scientific names I used. I feel very clever about coming up with them. I used taxonomic names based on the names for plants that currently exist, but I gave them a third component based on the name of the planetary system. The world An Oath of Dogs is set on is called “Huginn,” and it orbits a planet named “Wodin,” accompanied by the tiny satellite of “Muninn.” All the celestial bodies in the system are named for Norse entities, and it’s called the Yggdrasil system. So if humans were from Huginn, they’d be Yggdrasil homo sapiens.

CC: Those are great details, and I love the Norse influence… Speaking of which, gardening is another passion of yours. Tells us how it inspires/influences your writing.

WW: I love plants, and I love dirt. Everything I write winds up having a lot of plants in the background, simply because plants are a major part of the way I see the world. A world just doesn’t feel like a world unless it’s packed with growing things!

Since I find biology and horticulture so interesting, those sciences usually play the main role of “science” in my science fiction. I like writing about the future and imagining that people have traveled to new worlds, but since I barely pay attention to technology in our current world (at least while it’s working), I don’t spend a lot of time imagining fancy gadgets and crazy technology for my books.

CC: An Oath of Dogs explores the relationships between humankind, animals, and the landscape. Do you think it’s important a novel have a social message?

WW: Not exactly. I think it’s important for a novel to grapple with culture, because I think that as an artist, part of your job is to play around with cultural elements. And because you’re a human being, of course your work has a political, moral, philosophical, and sociological stance, no matter what you’re writing about or what genre that you’re working in. The more you try to understand and control the political, moral, philosophical, and sociological stance your work is taking, the more mature your work will feel and the stronger your craft will become. But that still might not feel like a “message,” per se.

CC: Your first two novels, Skinwalkers and Starspawn, are set in the shared Pathfinder world. How was it controlling your own universe in its entirety this time? Did it make the writing process easier or harder?

WW: Writing in my own world is vastly easier. I think the best fiction features characters and settings that grow intrinsically out of each other, and that’s almost impossible to achieve in a shared-world setting where your story can’t have any long-term effect on the world.

CC: Are you a plotter or a pantser?

WW: Yes and yes.

While I’ve had to write really in-depth outlines for projects (all of my tie-in work had to have multi-page outlines approved before I could start writing) and really appreciated having them as a tool for writing, I’ve also written things where I only had a very loose outline. I definitely like knowing a basic structure, but I don’t mind finding things out as I go.

CC: Now for fun, who would win in a fight, Kate Standish or Jendara (from An Oath of Dogs & Skinwalkers, respectively)? Compare their strengths and weaknesses.

WW: Jendara, definitely! Standish is tough-minded, and she has a fairly physical job, but Jendara is a combat veteran. Plus, she heats her house with wood and cooks on a wood stove, which means she’s constantly splitting logs.

While I was researching the Jendara novels—she lives in part of the Pathfinder world inspired by Viking culture, which meant lots of reading up on Vikings—I learned that one archaeological dig had uncovered a war horse with a cut in its leg bone containing shards of mail and other bone. Further examination made the archaeologists realize that a fighter had chopped their sword through the horse’s chain mail coat, through one of its front legs, and only finally come to stop in the bone of the horse’s second front leg. And that was with one blow! I can’t imagine that kind of strength, but it was far more common in less sedentary centuries.

CC: What if they teamed up? Who would be the sidekick?

WW: If those two teamed up, they’d be unbeatable. (Well, unless they found a keg of really good beer. Both of them are a little too fond of beer.) They both have incredibly hard heads and refuse to take no for an answer. But Standish would have to be the leader, because Jendara can be a bit rash, and she’s terrible at making plans. Then again, people like Jendara a lot more, so if it was a bigger group, she’d make the better leader. Standish is really good at getting people angry with her.

CC: Any other writing projects you’re working on?

WW: I’m working on a ton of stuff, but I’m not sure I can talk about any of them! I do have some fun short stories coming out, including one in this awesome anthology that looks like a Ouija board.

CC: That looks like a lot of fun! Thanks for stopping by, and good luck with all your writing endeavors!

An Oath of Dogs:
Kate Standish has been on the forest-world of Huginn less than a week and she’s already pretty sure her new company murdered her boss. But the little town of mill workers and farmers is more worried about eco-terrorism and a series of attacks by the bizarre, sentient dogs of this planet, than a death most people would like to believe is an accident. That is, until Kate’s investigation uncovers a conspiracy which threatens them all.

More About the Author:
Wendy N. Wagner grew up in a remote town on the Oregon coast, a place so small it had no grocery store and no television reception. When the bookmobile came every two weeks, the whole town gathered to explore its latest offerings. Books were her lifeline, her window into the outside world, and soon, an obsession.

Wendy’s short fiction has appeared in more than 30 anthologies and magazines, and she has written tie-in fiction for the award-winning Pathfinder role-playing game (including two novels). Her third novel, AN OATH OF DOGS, is due out July 2017.

As well as writing, Wendy is also the managing/associate editor of LIGHTSPEED and NIGHTMARE magazines. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her very understanding family. You can follow her exploits on www.winniewoohoo.com.

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Binge Reading & Soul Drifting

Thanks largely to enhanced streaming capabilities, the past few years have witnesses an increase in the amount of television binge watching. Not only is this method an addicting way to watch your favorite show, some shows have actually restructured their writing to meet this trend. HBO’s Programming President, Michael Lombardo, defended the second season of True Detective by saying viewers needed to, “watch the entirety of it,” before passing judgment, despite the episodes being released one at a time. Netflix and other distributors eschew the week-to-week delivery of content and release entire seasons of their shows in one go with the expectation that loyal fans will be discussing the final episode by the end of the day.

But binge consumption of genre related entertainment is nothing new. Readers have done the same for decades. Maybe not in one butt-numbing stretch, but in eagerly devouring everything an author can produce, and often as fast as the author can produce it. And the funny thing is, this trend occurs whether the author is a favorite or new to the reader. Readers will find out what the author has written before and grab it, even buying blocks of books on Amazon–hey, they’re discounted that way–before cracking open the first volume.

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In fact, it is sometimes difficult for new authors to sell their first book solely because readers don’t want to invest in something they can’t read more of if they happen to get hooked. I have witnessed this first-hand at conventions. At GenCon’s Author Alley in 2011, I was hard-pressed to get readers to take a gamble on a single, slim-for-fantasy novel, The Roads to Baldairn Motte, but those authors pitching multiple volumes–who were just as unheard of as I was–continuously piqued readers’ interests not by their series tagline but by the sheer amount of content they were offering! Seven massive tomes always looks more enticing on a table than a single book.

autumn_rebublic_coverAuthors like Brian McClellan have adopted a clever strategy to grab the attention of modern readers and keep them sated. He released novellas surrounding the narrative of his main novels. These are short spin-offs cast from different character viewpoints or set at different points in time. (See Battleship Galactica for an example of how television has done the same thing while viewers waited for the next season.) The novellas give existing readers additional content delivered at a pace months (if not years, Mr. Martin) faster than waiting on a longer novel, and they also present new readers with an Author page filled with content. Even better, with ebook novellas offered as cheap as they are, it’s a financially viable solution for both parties. (McClellan’s novellas are roughly one-third the cost of his novels.)

Which brings me to Souldrifter, the second volume of Garrett Calcaterra’s Dreamwielder Chronicles. I’m excited for this book not just because it promises great adventure and an expansion to the vast, rich world first established by Dreamwielder, but because I know new readers will take a chance on the books marketed as a series where they might have passed on each individually. The door is open for a whole new readership to find Makarria, who, as Wendy Wagner, author of the Pathfinder Tales novel, Skinwalkers, points out, “…is a teenage heroine who does more than just kick butt: she’s smart, powerful, and surprisingly believable for a fourteen-year-old queen.”

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Bruce McAllister, author of The Village Sang to the Sea, adds, “Souldrifter meets the promise of its predecessor with royal trumpets. Fine writing, magic, epic intrigue, a great cast, and a central character (Makarria) who mesmerizes—what more does a reader need to be happy?”

As much as they can consume, of course!

Spy v. Spy Had it Right

A great villain is more than someone for your hero to defeat, and
describing your villain as big and bad isn’t enough. They have to
have motivations and attainable goals, just like the hero. So instead
of thinking in terms of a protagonist and an antagonist, imagine
your story as one where two (or more) characters have conflicting
goals. How do the aims of each IMPACT the other? How do each
REACT to the actions of the other? This banter between opposing
sides should drive the cause and effect structure of the narrative.

Often when writers get lost on where their story goes next, it
is because they are only thinking about what one side—normally
the hero—should do. When plotting out a scene, a short story, or
even a novel, imagine yourself playing chess alone. Move your
first piece with a bit of action, then immediately turn the board
around and play from the other side. Ask yourself what move
this side would make in reaction, then flip the board around
again. Keep going in this fashion until there is a victor. Not all of
these moves have to be “visible” to the reader in the final story,
but knowing what they are and why they were made will help
tighten the narrative and add depth to those wicked doers out to
thwart your hero.

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A Slice of the Author – Creating Setting

HWP_000It’s long been argued that all fictional characters contain some facet of the author. To what extent remains a debate, but what about setting? After all, in fantasy and science fiction, the where can be more important than the who or the what. Who is Robb Stark without the cold north of Westeros? Or Katniss Everdeen without Panem and the Hunger Games arena? But does that mean that without living through a Chicago winter, George R.R. Martin couldn’t have envisioned the lands beyond the Wall? Of course not. Yet it’s interesting that he has attributed the creation of his Wall to a trip to Hadrian’s Wall in England. His version is just a bit larger and colder.

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I have also hiked along Hadrian’s Wall. In fact, I have hiked it from start to finish—all 84 miles of it—and believe me, there is no end to the amount of stories to be found there. From the amazing views to the castles and fortresses, every mile is ripe with details fit for a story.

And I think that is where an author creates a setting. It’s by taking details of places they know and adjusting them to create something new. Whether it’s from something they’ve seen, watched, or read about, every scrap becomes a thread that can be rewoven into a new tapestry. Or to extend the common forest and tree metaphor, creating setting is like taking the trees you know and rearranging them into a forest of wonder that no one has ever yet beheld.

Garrett Calcaterra, author of the novel, Dreamwielder, has never lived in a labyrinth of ice caves, but he drew upon his experiences hiking around Lake Chelan, in the Cascades, and around Scotland. As he explains, “I got to experience Edinburgh and do a little spelunking in search of Sawney Beane’s secret lair. These experiences melded together with images I’d seen in documentaries about cliff dwelling indigenous tribes and the earth-shaping powers of glaciers. I came up with this sprawling ice cavern [for Dreamwielder] where an ancient race of humans built a city into the living rocks of the mountain and lived beneath the azure hue of the glacier above them.”

“The Dream Thief of Kuthahaar,” my story in the October 2012 issue of Bards & Sages Quarterly, grew in the telling, as the saying goes. Only in this case, the telling was of another story altogether, my first in the setting of the Immortal City of Kuthahaar, “The Kultar’s Lost Hand.” For that story I created a place with palaces and bazaars, a congested city teeming with guilds and a harsh ruling class, where the dregs of society found solace only below ground, in deep caverns the rich considered fit only for the dead.

But why Sultans and robes and sandals? Why not trousers and frock coats and timber-framed lodges? I didn’t set out to write an “Arabian themed” tale. In fact, I don’t consider the story Arabian at all. The idea for the story spawned from a movie I grew up with, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Yes, that one. Laugh or groan all you like, I was fourteen and it was the coolest thing ever, next to Willow. And it was the scene at the start of the film, where the thief has his hand lopped off that left an impression with me and started the story. I wondered: what did the man do afterward? Did all society shun him? Had he been a villain before? Or had he been respected, maybe even someone of importance? So the man grew a back story and a personality, and all the time the dwellings and clothes and scents and sounds around him stuck in shades of sandstone, with oils and incense covering the stench created by a glaring sun and too many poor toiling in crowded streets.

It wasn’t difficult to fill in the details. A trip to the local farmer’s market may not yield the same foods, but the feeling of congestion is the same. There are any number of candle and incense shops out there, and as for the desert, Southern California is a great stand in for hot and dry! And so each scene was filled in as I needed it, with details summoned from a wide range of memories. I just needed to pick and place them in a context that made sense for this new society.

As the details were drawn in, other stories sprouted from the nooks and crannies. “The Dream Thief of Kuthahaar,” began as I started to wonder who these Seers were who watched the city (a group of sorcerers mentioned briefly in the first story.) They worked for the Sultan, but how did he win their loyalty? If they had such power, why did they not use it for their own aims? As I wondered, not only did new characters spring up, but new parts of the city as well. A temple, parts of the Sultan’s palace, the lands about the city, all became a part of the setting as young Akil, the protagonist, wandered toward his destiny.

Other stories followed full of assassins and heroines, desperate men and cunning scoundrels. Hopefully, many more will come. All will be a fabrication, holding the merest slices of the author, scrambled and contorted, fried and blended, until the place exists only in the imagination.

For those interested, here is a link to the Hadrian’s Wall National Trail site: http://www.nationaltrail.co.uk/HadriansWall/index.asp.

This post originally appeared on Tales From the Sith Witch, the blog of Julie Ann Dawson.