GUEST POST: Amalgams, Juxtapositions, and Fusions – Or, Where Do Stories Come From?

roninPlease welcome guest author Travis Heermann to the blog today! 

There is nothing new under the sun.

This maxim is something into which every writer smacks his or her forehead fairly early on in their efforts. This leads to the paralyzing fear: my work isn’t original enough.

Aside from artistic inspirations like the grandeur of nature and the triumph, tragedy, and pathos of human experience, art is itself an enormous source of inspiration for writers, musicians, graphic artists, etc. To see a film that leaves us exultant or weeping, to read a book that lights a fire in us that burns for years, to hear a song that brings a lump to the throat or makes our hearts sing, these are the ways that other artists are often spurred to create, to put their own spin on a concept, to join a conversation happening at that moment, a conversation with the zeitgeist that is larger than any single work. Art strikes chords in other artists to create, often in different media than the original inspiration.

When I was twelve, I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars books, and that event turned me into a writer. I borrowed my mom’s old Smith-Corona typewriter and pounded out a couple hundred pages of pure pastiche, but for me it was an homage. I lost myself in creating the kind of fun and adventure I had experienced on Barsoom. I didn’t care that it wasn’t original in the slightest. I was a kid having fun.

After that, it was Robert E. Howard, then J.R.R. Tolkien, then Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft. From Burroughs and Howard I learned action and adventure, from Tolkien, epic scope and meticulous worldbuilding, from King, techniques of character building and breathless terror.

As I got older and started to study the craft of writing through how-to books, publications like Writer’s Digest and the Writer’s Market, and sheaves of rejection letters, I experienced that paralyzing fear that whatever I was doing had been done before, much better, by dozens of people before me.

But I kept writing anyway. My first published novel The Ivory Star (Commonwealth, 1997) came out of those learning days and wears its influences on its sleeve (perhaps too glaringly I feel nowadays, but it was a work of pure, joyful fun).

“Good writers borrow, great writers steal.”

This quote has been attributed to Oscar Wilde, T.S. Eliot, and Aaron Sorkin. In the spirit of the sentence, who can be sure? (My money’s on Wilde.)

How many re-imaginings and retellings in modern times borrow (steal!) from Shakespeare or Grimm’s fairy tales? Fairy tales and folklore stories are nearly all retellings of older stories, morphed by the spirit of the times and places in which they are told. Mythology and folklore are constantly evolving. The Brothers Grimm simply captured a collection of stories like a snapshot in time. Those stories are still evolving, changing to fit the needs of the modern audience.

Modern writers and filmmakers borrow heavily from Shakespeare. Shakespeare borrowed heavily from the Classical Greek playwrights, from Ovid, from history, from his contemporaries.

Akira Kurosawa adapted two of Shakespeare’s plays–Macbeth into the creepy, claustrophobic black-and-white film Throne of Blood, and King Lear into the stunning, full-color epic Ran. In both cases, Kurosawa took an archetypal story and juxtaposed it onto medieval Japanese history, putting his own unmistakable stamp on them.

It was this juxtaposition that became one of my inspirations for the Ronin Trilogy. The story of the Ronin Trilogy is amalgam of history, folklore, samurai cinema (good and bad), my experiences living in Japan, and countless other sparks of epiphany, the memory of which are lost to me.

Film influences include:

Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa
Ran by Akira Kurosawa
Throne of Blood by Akira Kurosawa
Excalibur by John Boorman
The Lone Wolf and Cub series

Literary influences are:

Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi
Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa

Readers of the Ronin Trilogy will soon recognize the Arthurian influences, and that was my central inspiration for the story: What if I juxtapose Arthurian legends on a samurai backdrop?

And this brings me to my final point.
The writer brings his or her original take to an old story, and their take is fueled and shaped by their own experiences and perspectives. Is this a foolproof elixir for a story’s originality? No. There are untold thousands of hopelessly unoriginal stories out there. Writers still need to strive for a fresh angle on a familiar story. This fresh angle often comes from new fusions, unexpected mash-ups, original juxtapositions.

Your particular set of passions and experiences is where the interesting new fusions come from. When I launched into the story that would become the Ronin Trilogy, I was infused with a wild excitement about Akira Kurosawa, Miyamoto Musashi, and Arthurian legend. The result is something that resonates in new and interesting ways beyond the inspirations.

So it’s true that there is nothing new under the sun. The angles to approach a familiar story, however, are infinite, just as no two writers are alike.

The story of the Ronin Trilogy is now approaching its epic conclusion, and I would appreciate your assistance in bringing it to glorious life. I am running a Kickstarter from now until February 24, 2015, to fund the publication of Book 3, Spirit of the Ronin. Please visit the campaign on Kickstarter here and consider supporting it.

Author Bio: Freelance writer, novelist, award-winning screenwriter, editor, poker player, poet, biker, roustabout, Travis Heermann is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and the author of the Ronin Trilogy, The Wild Boys, and Rogues of the Black Fury, plus short fiction pieces in anthologies and magazines such as Fiction River’s How to Save the World, Historical Lovecraft, and Cemetery Dance’s Shivers VII. As a freelance writer, he has produced a metric ton of role-playing game work both in print and online, including the Firefly Roleplaying Game, Legend of Five Rings, d20 System, and the MMORPG, EVE Online.

He enjoys cycling, martial arts, torturing young minds with otherworldly ideas, and zombies. He has three long-cherished dreams: a produced screenplay, a NYT best-seller, and a seat in the World Series of Poker.

Guest: Jeremy Zimmerman, THAT AIN’T RIGHT #Kickstarter

Please help me welcome guest Jeremy Zimmerman to the blog today! Jeremy is editor of Mad Scientist Journal, and also of the THAT AIN’T RIGHT Lovecraft-inspired anthology currently being crowd-funded on Kickstarter! *Kermit flail*

thataintrightWe’re crowdfunding an anthology of tales set in the Miskatonic Valley, told by the people who live there. Sort of. We’re having authors write tales from the point of view of people who live or visit there. Why would we do such a thing?

Because we run a little e-zine called Mad Scientist Journal. It started with some random person at a convention proclaiming that there should be a scientific journal for mad scientists. And I registered the domain name on the spot. Since then we’ve published a couple years’ worth of stories with one bit of meta-fiction surrounding it:

All of our stories have a fictional narrator telling the story. They share the by-line with the real author and get their own bio at the bottom. We publish the stories on our site. Every quarter, we collect them and put them in an ebook with some exclusive stories (the “fiction” section of our Journal), some fake classified ads, and even an advice column. It’s sort of my love-letter to the long dead Omni Magazine.

But having a mostly free ezine doesn’t pay for itself very well. So we spent some time trying to think of a stand-alone book that could tie into the same sort of ideas as Mad Scientist Journal, but was different enough that we wouldn’t just publish the stories on the site.

Then one day, the phrase “oral histories of the Miskatonic Valley” popped into my head and sparked off a chain reaction. Instead of having stories about mad scientists, why not stories about regular people who have to deal with the Lovecraft-style horrors?

Since all the cool kids are doing Kickstarters, we figured we could too. And to sweeten the pot, we thought we could have some pre-selected authors to go with it. Between our life as writers and our work with the ‘zine, we’ve gotten to meet a lot of really great people. So we emailed anyone we thought would be interested in writing to a deadline for almost no money. And we got back seven really awesome stories.

The Kickstarter has gone well so far. We’ve had some great successes. I’m really looking forward to seeing the final product.

Best of luck to Jeremy and everyone involved in this project. Please go to https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/bolthy/that-aint-right-a-lovecraftian-anthology to check out details about the THAT AIN’T RIGHT anthology, and to pledge an amount to support it!

When Christmas Wasn’t for Wimps, a Guest Post by Emma Jane Holloway

Please join me in welcoming author Emma Jane Holloway to the blog! Emma is the author of the Baskerville Affair series from Del Rey, a Steampunk series about the mystery and mayhem (and a touch of romance) that surrounds Evelina Cooper, the niece of the great detective Sherlock Holmes. The third book of the series, A STUDY IN ASHES, releases December 31.

WHEN CHRISTMAS WASN’T FOR WIMPS: A Curmudgeonly Retrospective of Holiday Festivities

Images of Victorian Christmas abound: skaters on a frozen lake, rosy-cheeked children, and carollers in frock coats and mufflers. Scrooge and Tiny Tim appear in quaint London streets. Angels waft and bells ring. It’s a marzipan world fit for the Sugar Plum Fairy.

ImageYeah, right. Let’s be realistic. A good old-fashioned Christmas was downright dangerous, and not just for the goose about to be cooked. We’re not just talking too much food and drink. We’re not even talking about the weather, epidemics, or the other hazards of daily living way back when. I’m talking about Christmas traditions themselves. It’s a miracle anyone survived to welcome Twelfth Night.

 Okay, that’s a little dramatic, but let’s rewind a bit. A lot of traditions that we associate with the holiday season—singing, dancing, feasting and decorating with greenery—have their origins in pagan times.  The Yule log dates back to Viking days when, after a few stiff horns of mead, burly men would trek into the frozen woods with axes and cut down a tree. Then they would burn it. There was mystical significance, of course, but I think at bottom it was a guy thing involving beer, fire and sharp objects. There are no statistics to say how many alcohol-infused idiots accidentally chopped their own feet or each other in the process, but there had to be a few. Happily, the modern-day Yule log TV channel only requires a remote control, although the male bonding routine just isn’t the same.

Then again, if your mead-swilling sweetie returned from the woods unscathed, you could kiss him under the mistletoe. That all sounds great, except the plant is a poisonous parasite that survives by draining the life out of its host. As romantic symbols go, it kind of sucks. Maybe the vampires invented it.

Anyway, if we fast-forward to the seventeenth century, the Puritans made Christmas illegal in order to get rid of all those pagan trappings. Sadly, it wasn’t for safety reasons—this was the time of the English Civil War, and the new government took itself very seriously. That meant no fun at any time, but especially at Yule. There are countless reports of riots springing up between pro- and anti-Christmas factions as Cromwell got his Grinch on. Offenders were jailed and/or questioned by the army, who sounded about as much fun as Imperial Storm Troopers. No one got candy canes.

Of course, Cromwell can’t be blamed for everything. Puritan New England had a similarly uneasy relationship with the holiday, and it wasn’t until the middle of the nineteenth century that Christmas really caught on in parts of America. It’s hard to imagine what interpretation those fun guys in Salem would have put on something called Black Friday.

ImageAnd so we make it to the Victorian era. Charles Dickens is often credited with recasting Christmas from an adult event to a child-focussed family holiday. Really, I think he tapped into growing mood and gave it form. After all, the Victorians were very concerned with public welfare, family values, and a revival of serious sentiment. Queen Victoria and her family served as a popular model for wholesome living, very different from the rakish excesses of King George IV and his Regency drinking buddies.

Roughly around that time, the Royal Consort, Prince Albert, imported a number of traditions from his native Germany. The best known is the Christmas tree, which—given the snowy woods and ax connection—is a mere pine needle away from the whole Yule log episode. However, instead of sensibly putting pitch-soaked wood in the fireplace to burn, the Victorians decorated these trees with live candles, adding a thrilling element of suspense to the festivities. 

And the fun didn’t stop there. The British have a game called Brandy Snap, which involves plucking raisins out of a burning bowl of punch. Yes, our ancestors knew how to make their own fun before television and the advent of the emergency room. And if that wasn’t enough, Twelfth Night cakes were baked with coins inside, evidently without regard to dental work or choking hazards. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I do love Christmas, and I do love the fuzzy, gold-tinted version of Victorian Christmas that advertisers serve up like a syrupy confection. Sadly, that vision was no more truthful than our own holidays are perfect. And, by our standards, a Victorian Christmas would be drafty, dangerous, and woefully short on loot.  Children generally got one or two presents, not a mountain of consumer goods.

In short, I can’t imagine how a real nineteenth-century celebration would fare in our risk-averse modern society. For instance, how many of us would encourage young children to stick their hands in flaming punch?  How many apartments forbid live trees, let alone live trees with real candles? That greeting card version of an old-fashioned Christmas looks good on paper, but we’re too cautious to bring it to life.

Me, I’ll go for the Viking with the ax and barrel of mead. With any luck, he’ll be hot enough to melt all that snow.

ImageEver since childhood, Emma Jane Holloway refused to accept that history was nothing but facts prisoned behind the closed door of time. Why waste a perfectly good playground coloring within the timelines? Accordingly, her novels are filled with whimsical impossibilities and the occasional eye-blinking impertinence–but always in the service of grand adventure.

Struggling between the practical and the artistic–a family tradition, along with ghosts and a belief in the curative powers of shortbread–Emma Jane has a degree in literature and job in finance. She lives in the Pacific Northwest in a house crammed with books, musical instruments, and half-finished sewing projects. In the meantime, she’s published articles, essays, short stories, and enough novels to build a fort for her stuffed hedgehog. You can learn more about Emma at her website, www.emmajaneholloway.com

 

Regarding the Care and Feeding of a Fallen Civilization, by J. Kenton Pierce

Please join me in welcoming author J. Kenton Pierce to the blog today!

ImageI place the blame squarely on Alice Mary Norton.  It’s really all her fault.  As a boy I’d read my hobbits and seen my Star Wars, hid behind the couch from The Devil In the Dark.  Really.  (I mean, how the hell do you get away from a monster that can burrow right up through the ground to acid you up some?)  But it was Andre Norton who showed me the possibility that a broken world offered.  Daybreak 2250 latched on to a corner of my imagination and claimed it for its own.

Broken worlds offer a lot to play with.  Picking and choosing which pieces get put back together, and into what shape…  What values survive?  What necessities become traditions, new values?  I’m not talking a year or ten after the Zombocolypse or whatever.  That’s been done, sometimes brilliantly, sometimes, well, not so much.

Pournelle and Niven taught me how to break ‘worlds in Lucifer’s Hammer and Footfall.  That’s a start.  I’ve always loved colonization tales like Legacy of Heorot.  So.  Broken, lost colony?  Well, in a big space-opera sort of storyverse, that would take a galaxy-wide interregnum to actually stay lost.  Easy enough.  And to think they ask “War, what is it good for?”

That settled, what could I do differently to set my broken world apart?

How about a world where the survivors have retained their history instead of sinking into some primitive, superstitious tribalism?  (Not knocking the trope, just not where I wanted to go.)  Hmm… most of the heavy industry would be in orbit, in the belts…  The dirtside industry that survived would be small scale.  And they’d need to develop technologies that wouldn’t attract the attention of the blockade drones orbiting their world.  Those automated relics target wireless signals and electromagnetic noise.  No skimmers, floaters, aircars, or hell, anything that used internal combustion, which rely on electrical systems…

“We didn’t just get all stupid and forget all our Science out in the rain where it got ruint or something.  We know right where we left it; we just can’t use most of it without getting a chunk of nickel-iron slammed into us from on high. So don’t get some idea we’re all dancing nekkid around fires praying to some “Sky People” or worshiping an old bottle of Zippy Fizzaloo.—Shaifennen Roehe, A Kiss For Damocles

Oooohhhh… I love me my steampunk.  Hmmm… is there a way to rationally fit clockwork and steam in a relatively hard sci-fi universe?  No Vibratory Rays or Etherium Crystals.

Challenge accepted.

Clockwork spring-bolters instead of gauss weapons, airships of nanoweave fiber and fullerene composites, powered by steam engines that run on biogas.  Pre-war, high tech items like pocket readers with their data solids could be produced on a cottage-industry scale.

What about the people?  That’s the important part, after all.  The finest storyworld is a dry, cold place without people.  Which people?  Well, I love a broad palette.  One of the best things about the BBC is the wonderfully vibrant range of ethnicities and body types…Ayeden Prime would have been a cosmopolitan world, I’ll draw from as many ethnicities and heritages as I want.  (Hollywood casting must be like being invited to draw a picture, but only with a box that has most of the crayons missing…)  Gender roles are pretty non-existent, because Darwin doesn’t give a fig about antiquated social mores when supplies are low and there’s something scratching at your gate in the deep-winter darkness.  And family structures?  How would survivors huddled in underground mag-lev tubes adapt socially over centuries of volcanic winter?

That’s the thing I’ve learned to love about writing… practical, survival problems unexpectedly become the source local flavor; cultural seasonings that are familiar but in new combinations.  So if the social and technological goulash I’ve simmered up sounds interesting, consider a trip to Ayeden Prime.

You can purchase copies of J. Kenton Pierce’s new book, THE TERROR OF TWELVETY TOWN on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords 

Guest Post by Jeff Somers, author of CHUM

Jeff Somers is here, celebrating the release of his latest book, CHUM. Please give him a warm welcome–and if you COMMENT you will be eligible to receive a copy of CHUM!

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I Contain Multitudes: Everything I Write is Speculative Fiction

As I pursue my goal of being recognized as the Most Published Author to Die ImagePenniless[1], I’m staring down my 8th published novel in September: Chum from Tyrus books. I’m not sure what genre I’d call it; a mystery? A dark comedy? MumbleMurder? Such things are for Marketers to decide. All I do is write until I fall asleep and then wake up and can’t remember where I am for three or four terrifying seconds. And all I can rely on in this life is the almost hostile levels of disinterest the world takes in my work[2].

Genre doesn’t matter anyway: Everything I’ve written since July 16th, 2002 has been Speculative Fiction anyway, because I created a multiverse. You think creating a multiverse is hard? Nah. Wait a sec … just did it again! And now I’m going to destroy that new multiverse just as the various intelligent potted plants and whales begin to ask each other what it’s all about then. Boom. I am Jeff, Destroyer of Multiverses. And intelligent whales and potted plants[3].

ImageAt the moment, that multiverse is largely in my head, right alongside plans for a water engine, some pretty righteous jazz music that will destroy minds worldwide if I ever have the energy and time to compose it, and several spec scripts for defunct and short-lived television shows including Sliders[4], Heroes, and Manimal. The only literary evidence of this multiverse is a slight crossover between my first published novel, Lifers, and Chum. But that’s just some shared minor characters. There’s also a slight scene overlap between Chum and an as-yet unpublished novel, but we’re still just talking about a shared universe here.

But the multiverse is there, because of an unpublished novel I wrote that involved multiple universes. And in that novel I tie all of my other together, because they’re all part of that multiverse. In some subtle way that maybe only I will ever be aware of (in the same way I am the only one aware of my guitar playing genius[5]), everything I’ve ever written is science-fictiony.

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[6]

 

ImageI hope I get the chance to publish all the books that will bring this together. It would be a shame if my legacy falls into the hands of someImageweb host who I pre-pay for 100 years of hosting before I die so I can put up my JEFF SOMERS UNRECOGNIZED GENIUS web site and then they take the site down after three months because I’m almost certainly going to die alone and in some sort of state-run mental institution (translation, no lawyers)[7]. 

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[1]This is sort of the literary EGOT.

[2]If anyone wants to pay me not to write, I am listening.

[3]Whoa, I think that Sizzurp is kicking in.

[4]I co-wrote a Sliders comic book. No, really: http://www.earth62.net/comics/bloodsplendor.htm

[5]GENIUS: http://youtu.be/_mQrfbvSuzo

[6]Yes, in one multiverse I am a highly paid basketball player. Yes I have been drinking. What is your point?

[7]Also possible: Dying alone in the gutter while wearing nothing but a clown costume, dying as part of a mass suicide timed with rendezvous with alien-piloted asteroid, dying alone and being eaten by the several dozen cats I have in my grim, stuffy apartment.

—-

Jeff Somers was born in Jersey City, New Jersey and regrets nothing. He is the author of the Avery Cates series of novels published by Orbit Books and The Ustari Cycle books Tricksterand Fabricator (Pocket Books). He sold his first novel at age 16 to a tiny publisher in California which quickly went out of business and has spent the last two decades assuring potential publishers that this was a coincidence. Jeff publishes a zine called The Inner Swine and has also published a few dozen short stories; his story “Ringing the Changes” was selected for Best American Mystery Stories 2006, edited by Scott Turow and his story “Sift, Almost Invisible, Through” appeared in the anthology Crimes by Moonlight, published by Berkley Hardcover and edited by Charlaine Harris. His guitar playing is a plague upon his household and his lovely wife The Duchess is convinced he would wither and die if left to his own devices.