Category: Characters & Setting

Naming, research, maps, and other fun.

Places, Everyone!

r-avatarOur first three novels are set in the same made-up town, which is strongly inspired by a real place. The music novel and (son-of) are set in New York City, which despite what you may have heard is an actual, real place. For the science novel and its successors we have once again invented cities, and the locations that inhabit them.

The science novel’s locale is practically part of the cast. We never considered setting the story in a known city. When it came time to plan its sequels, though, we worked very hard at tracking down a real place that could work. Neither of us can quite say why. Given the logistical constraints of the plot, as well as some crucial geographic and climate considerations, it was proving all but impossible to choose an existing location. Plus, we wanted it to have a cool name.

The desire to name the place was probably the signal that snapped us out of it. So, today we concocted a deliciously Russian appellation for the place where we’ll be making more characters’ lives miserable, and decided where to put its map pin. In this case, “we” means Jen of course, because names are her superpower. Now that we’ve chosen this route, it’s dawned on us how strange it would have been to have books in a series follow different theories of setting and world-building.

As an added bonus, creating a location from scratch allows Kent to stretch his D&D muscles to draw up maps.

The Name Game

r-avatarOn any team, different players have different strengths. In the case of Rune Skelley, one of Jen’s main strengths is naming — things, people, places, you name it (but not if she sees it first). This is good because Kent tends to be less than awesome at coming up with names.

This doesn’t prevent him from having opinions, though. So, once in a while, Jen will deliver a name that just doesn’t work for Kent. And it does matter if both writing partners aren’t on the same page about a name. After all, characters’ names are perhaps the most important things about them. No other aspect gets such heavy use, or is called on to signify everything else the reader knows in such a compact, almost invisible way.

These name-disagreement situations are uncommon, but we’re in the midst of one right now. They’re terribly awkward. There’s a sense of “Jen is the one who’s good at this, so she wins,” which we both know isn’t a solution. Kent is at a disadvantage to produce viable alternatives, so he feels stuck. We really don’t have a formal process for coping with them, other than trying to keep communications open and give each other time to adjust. So far it’s never led to arson.

Partnership is about trust and compromise. Working with the right partner, compromise can be a creative exercise.

Reintroducing, For The First Time…

r-avatarAs Son of Science Novel’s plotting continues, one of the things we like to do is pick one character and look at the story through his or her eyes. Especially for the new characters, this is a great way to get acquainted with them and figure out their reasons for choosing certain paths and forming certain allegiances.

For returning characters, we don’t expect the process to show us so much about them. We still do it, for other reasons. This week it turned out that one of our returning characters was sorta-kinda new, too.

This person has a minor part in the Science Novel. It’s not that we didn’t know him, but in this book he’ll be promoted to the POV cast. For that, we need to get to know him better. Looking at the story from his vantage helped us spot many small but important unanswered questions, which now mostly have answers. The issue also applied to the backstory, and for that we used our time-honored technique of going out to dinner as members of our cast. (Kent cheated a little bit this time by not doing the accent.) Mostly when we do that, the characters at the table are romantically involved. For this outing, they were parent and adult child. It was highly illuminating.

Having a writing partner means there’s someone to help out with every phase of the complex process of writing a novel. And, sometimes it means you have someone to take out for dinner.

Getting More Excited Every Night

r-avatarWe have turned a corner in plotting Son of Science Novel, and it feels so good. We no longer have to say, “Let’s try to focus on plot-level events instead of backstory,” because (as we knew would happen) our knowledge of the new characters’ histories is now sufficient that the story proper has started to come alive.

One key to reaching this turning point is that we’ve started to give our new characters some stressors and time constraints. The protagonist from Science Novel was, of course, our seed for the new story threads, but it took a while for other characters to really activate. Now they have pressing issues of their own, not just a static collection of wants that our returning protagonist will bump into. They’re not just waiting for their turn as a foil anymore, but are part of a story that would be happening even if this person from a previous book didn’t stroll through. (But of course, she does, and that makes things ever so much more interesting!)

Kent has noted of a couple of particulars, “That’ll be fun to write!” Those tend to be the ultra-geeky ideas. Jen is building up our repository of reference photos for the new cast members, a process that sometimes causes us to re-envision these people. It definitely helps us feel a connection to them.

The best part is, our momentum is building as our investment and excitement build. We still have a long way to go, but we’ve crested a steep hill and right now we’re picking up speed as we coast down the other side. The wind in our hair feels great!

Beyond The Edge of the Page

r-avatarReaders want to feel immersed, and they want to place their trust in the author to know where the story is going. These concepts shake hands through the magic of world-building: in order to help people forget that everything on the page is made up, you must make up a ton of additional stuff to give it context.

Despite the oft-touted genre influence on how much world-building is called for, the simple fact is that all narrative — nonfiction included — needs to create a compelling environment, a vivid arena where the action will unfold. And it needs to be expansive enough to feel unbounded, like the story could go in any direction and never hit a trompe-l’oeil backdrop. In a realistic story this might not, technically, count as world-building, but let’s not get hung up on technicalities. Whether it’s a beach in the Caribbean or a plateau on Mars, you want your reader to feel the sand.

This is sometimes described as the sense that the story extends past the edges of the page. Striving for that effect raises an important question: how far?

World-building is a type of research. You’re just creating information rather than finding it in other sources. As with all forms of research, there’s a risk of falling down a rabbit-hole. Erring on the side of thoroughness is probably wise, but stay wary of the point of diminishing returns. Questions that come up in the middle of writing a scene can derail your productivity if you fixate on them.

In Son of Music Novel, one of the secondary characters is on television, in a show we made up. We know what it’s called, but up until a recent work session we hadn’t filled in anything else about it. And, the show’s title suggested two possible kinds of show it might be. We know that the show needn’t be depicted on the page, so theoretically we don’t need to settle the question of what it’s about.

But we do, actually. Tossing off a title that’s not attached to anything calls attention to the gap. It makes a reader wonder. Wondering what’s behind that title turns into wondering if the author’s ever going to address it, reminds the reader that someone made all this up.

What we (probably) won’t do is make lists of episode titles. The band’s discography is documented in tremendous detail, but there’s a reason we call this book’s parent the Music Novel. It’s not the Television Novel. You need to prioritize, because the world you’re building truly is boundless. This is where it can be helpful to have someone (a writing partner, for instance) who can act as a sounding board and help you know when it’s time to climb out of the rabbit-hole.

Rune Skelley’s Women in STEM

r-avatarThe future well-being of humanity depends heavily — maybe entirely — on our net proficiency in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Viewed in that light, the under-representation of women in those fields isn’t just unfortunate, it’s disastrous. Half of our potential for advancement is stymied, when the species needs all the help it can get.

Here in the writing cave we try not to be too soapboxy about stuff. Rune Skelley writes about what fascinates Kent and Jen. We don’t make those choices based on any agenda beyond “make it awesome, and then add a bunch of amazing up in there.”

With all that being said, we looked back over our projects and discovered that Rune Skelley has a damn good track record of strong female characters who rock the STEM. These ladies include an electrical engineer, a computer programmer, a geneticist, and a pair of medical researchers. It wouldn’t count for much if these were just labels we stuck on them, just part of their backstory or shorthand for “she’s a nerdy chick.” These are not walk-on roles, either. We’re talking about protagonists and major supporting characters. And in each case, if not for their expertise, depicted on the page, the plot could not move forward.

Other female characters in our novels have brainy jobs outside of STEM: an author and an investigative journalist, for example. (And a couple of them are murderers with special powers. They make a formidable group!)

The guys in our books represent too, of course. But we’re not here to talk about them today.

Our team being gender-balanced, and biased toward the geeky end of the scale, probably goes a long way to account for all this. It’s just art imitating life: Jen has a BS, whereas Kent limps by on his measly BA.

To learn more about women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, you can start here.

What Color Is The Sky

r-avatarBy now, we have a fairly good handle on the background info, physical attributes, and overall personalities of all the major characters for the new novel. Jen has tracked down reference photos and filled in all the details on the character sheets. But there’s a big difference between knowing all about someone, and really knowing them.

We make use of multiple points of view in our novels, usually switching at chapter breaks and sometimes within a chapter as well. It’s third-person, but not omniscient. This goes well beyond just limiting the facts to those that the POV character could know and not letting any subjective details from the rest of the cast slip through. It’s important that each scene really convey what the world is like for that character. Being able to do that requires that we know them intimately, that they become real to us. And getting to know a bunch of people that well takes some time.

On this project, we’re making a conscious effort to mold our process around what we’ve learned on a few previous books. We really want to have the voices dialed in right from the beginning, because it sucks when you have a hundred pages of great material that’s riddled with a subtle, pervasive flaw. So we’re trying to avoid our past mistakes, like the time our readers didn’t feel connected to our protagonist (whom we absolutely loved and couldn’t get why anybody else could feel otherwise — we had neglected to put her feelings on the page) or the time we went back to the opening scene and discovered that that protagonist was behaving “out of character” (we got to know her properly only after the first part was written).

That’s not to say we had no successes, far from it. A particularly good move, which arose organically and then we recognized and formalized it, is the way we tend to divvy up scenes based on their viewpoints. This allows us to deepen our connections to certain characters, and also lets us each play to our strengths by adopting the characters that resonate with us more. There’s no rule that says “that’s a Kent character; Jen can’t write it,” and by the time we’re done there’s typically quite a bit of overlap, but as a guideline it works very well.

A few vignettes have been crafted for Son of Music Novel, things which might or might not get incorporated into the manuscript. Kent’s next project, now that there’s a bit of raw material and now that some psychoanalysis of the cast has been done, is to revise those maybe-apocryphal scenes so their POV characters’ personalities saturate them. This exercise will give us the benchmark for how the “real” scenes should feel once we begin composing the novel per se. We take a holistic view of getting the voices right. It spans all levels, from mechanicals to vocabulary to reasoning styles and even sensory inputs that are unique to each character. It’s a lot of up-front effort, but it will put us ahead of the game later on.

Lavishly Illustrated Plans for World Domination

r-avatarAs co-writers who work together in the textual medium, Jen and Kent are somewhat unusual. However, there are other storytelling forms wherein laboring in solitude would be the exception. In the case of film, it’s nearly unheard of for one person to create the whole thing.

We’re fascinated by other storytellers’ processes, and recently we had the chance to bask in the genius of Alejandro Jodorowsky (not in person, sadly, but still). By now you certainly have heard about Jodorowsky’s Dune, the documentary of the almost-making of the greatest movie that doesn’t exist. (No? Search it now, then come back. You’ll thank us.)

In particular, we were captivated by the book. (And here we don’t mean the novel he was adapting.)

Jodorowsky compiled his team’s fabulous concept art and shot-by-shot storyboards into a mammoth book for presentation to Hollywood studios. He knew that a vision so audacious would seem unattainable, thus the meticulous (and gorgeous) documentation of how he planned to bring it about.

iu-1 iu-2

The photos don’t convey the book’s immenseness. It’s the size of a shoebox.

For Rune Skelley, Jodorowsky’s presentation book for Dune is inspirational. We have a fairly detailed (and occasionally colorful) process of our own, which is not going to seem very impressive next to what’s mentioned above. But we do put in a lot of effort up front because, when you’re working as a team, whether on a novel or a film, it’s crucial to know that you’re sharing the same vision.

In addition to the used-up steno pad, and the rainbow, and the prose outline, and the nearly-but-not-quite traditional outline, and the stubs, we also pull together piles of other notes and images that connect us to the story world.

Early in the process, we “cast” every role in the book by tracking down pictures of people who could play them. Often these are photos of famous actors, but we don’t limit ourselves when searching. These photos become incorporated into the character sheets that list out other basic data about each person in the story.

Another thing we do is “scout locations,” choosing real-world buildings to serve as templates, or sometimes to play themselves. In son-of-music novel, a family purchases a certain well known landmark mansion. Jen has been doing a little nip and tuck on the floor plan to bring it into line with the new occupants’ needs, while respecting the historical character of the structure of course.

Kent’s done a fair bit of research, most of which is classified. The most enjoyable part was putting together a gallery of fractal images and coming up with a categorization system for them. (He realizes fractals have already been categorized, but not in a way that meets Rune Skelley’s requirements.)

As with everything else about writing our books, we’re mad planners where world-building is concerned. And even when our settings resemble consensus reality — superficially — we devote the energy to make sure we can feel them under our nails.

Roleplaying In Public

r-avatarOne of the great joys about working on a new novel (#6!) is getting to know the new characters. It’s also one of the biggest hurdles to clear before the prose will come together. Until you bond with these imaginary people, writing feels like putting words in their mouths. They say the lines, but after delivering each one they look over at you to see what’s supposed to happen next.

Kent and Jen have a few tricks they use to speed up the getting-acquainted stage with a new cast. Of course there’s tons of discussion and note-taking, filling out character sheets, learning the facts of their backstories. But facts can be dry and uninspiring. To get a richer feel for these characters, Rune Skelley likes roleplaying.

The other night, two characters from Rune’s upcoming sixth book strolled into iHop. Sure they looked like Jen and Kent, but rest assured that’s not who they were. Something even less obvious to casual observers was the temporal distortion bubble: the two individuals conversing across the booth were younger versions of themselves. A phase when they were closer, compared to the present-day events of the novel. When they could relax around each other, just chillin’ and being fictitious at a pancake joint.

Jen and Kent use roleplaying quite a lot. Another new character is a killer with a particular technique, which needed to be, um, road-tested. (A little.) It’s also useful for debugging dialogue and validating motivation, things that can come up in later stages of the writing.

Both Kent and Jen have a bit of theater background, and spent years playing Dungeons & Dragons and other FRPGs. Adopting another persona might be a bit easier because of that experience, but it’s just a matter of practice to get comfortable with it.

A solo author could of course make like Travis Bickle and role play in a mirror, but having a writing partner means you always have a costar on hand to make you feel less ridiculous.

Do you use roleplaying as part of your writing process?

Substance Over Style

r-avatarOur current round of brainstorming is pointing out yet again why having a coauthor is such a marvelous thing. We’ve been kickin’ it old school, writing out notes longhand in a steno pad. It’s a great way to wake up different parts of the brain, but it’s also a great way to get a hand cramp. On those days when your fingers need a break, your collaborator can pry the quill from your gnarled fist and take over the scrivening duties. As long as you both have moderately legible handwriting, you’re saved!

A good writing partner has many uses besides that overly literal interpretation of the term. We know in broad strokes how the plot of our new novel will go, so right now we’re concentrating on fleshing out the major characters, filling in their backstories. Most of what we’ve been talking about won’t appear on the page, but it will inform the characters’ actions. We need to know who these people are and how they got that way. It’s the only way to make them feel real and fully formed. Details from their pasts often prompt plot points when we get to the outline stage.

So we’ve been flitting from character to character, having a grand old time gossiping about their secrets and what-have-you, until last night. That’s when we realized we’d been avoiding talking about the villain. He’s not a total stranger, mind you. We know several very important things about him, like his name, and what he’ll be doing in the novel. We know that he’s a very bad person, we just didn’t know how he got that way.

After chatting and throwing out wild ideas we whittled our list down to two possibilities. Option 1 has a really striking visual, and can probably be made to play nicely with the facts we already “know” about this guy and his MO. Option 2 is a bit more mundane, but opens up some really nice avenues for a character arc and some theme elements.

Obviously we chose Option 2, but the striking visual of Option 1 was very enticing. It’s over the top and gross and operatic. It represents a chance to really show off. It’s got style. Repulsive, dangerous style. Jen was having a hard time letting go, but luckily she has a writing partner. Kent was able to stuff his fingers in his ears and ignore the siren song. He argued for Option 2, for boring old plot momentum and character cohesion. And he’s right. The story overall will be much better if we opt for substance over style.

Never fear, Option 2 isn’t actually boring. It’s plenty disturbing and violent and sick. It’s just tame in comparison to the much bloodier Option 1. And we’ve filed Option 1 away for future use.

So maybe fear a little bit.