The Shape of Things: Postmortem

A while back, I did a postmortem piece about my novel Nocturne. Well, it’s been awhile, and now I’ve got another book out. This one is The Shape of Things, and it’s another story that I feel needs a bit of explanation. Or venting, if you prefer. Either way, here are my thoughts, and beware of spoilers.

The seed

Every good story grows from a seed. So do the bad ones, like mine. In this case, the idea that spawned The Shape of Things came from my aunt. She’s a loyal reader, and she’s been there pretty much since the beginning of my writing not-quite-career. Most of all, she listens, and she responds with positive feedback and constructive criticism. (When she can get past “when’s the next one coming out?” and “what happens next?”, at least.) While I’m writing, I’m mostly in my own little world, insulated from everything around me. Great for focus, not so good for creating stories that appeal to, you know, other people.

Anyway, I was talking with my aunt one day, and she said something to the effect of, “Hey, I’ve got an idea for your next book.” Now, I’m not usually one for submissions, but there is nothing in this world more important to me than my family, so I’ll always give them a shot. And that’s what I did. She pitched the idea: What if all those monsters like Bigfoot are really people, but they change into the monsters?

At the time, I was thinking that, yeah, it might work. I put it in the queue along with a few of my own ideas, but I kept it in the back of my head. As I said, this is family we’re talking about here. And I did think it had potential. Couldn’t be much worse than some of the things I come up with, right?

The more I considered it, the bigger it became in my mind. I’ll gladly admit that the Dresden Files books are a huge influence on this one, and that series was very prominent in my thoughts as I ran through a few scenarios that might work out for my own paranormal story. I didn’t want exactly that, of course. No, mine has more in common with Sanctuary or Warehouse 13 or shows like those. We’re not dealing with actual magic, just the paranormal.

On a lighter note, since my aunt was the one who gave me the inspiration for The Shape of Things, she got a kind of cameo role. In fact, she’s basically the one who keeps the main story moving. And I made sure to give her character some of the same mannerisms and quirks. (She hates even the mention of zombies, for example. You wouldn’t believe the grumbling when I had her read Either Side of Night!)

The process

I didn’t want this to be fantasy. I wanted a story firmly grounded in the real world, but with the knowledge that our world might not be quite as real as we want to believe. Thus, the setting is here and now. Not so much a “mythic” America, but modern America, just with extra monsters.

The key here is the nature of the monster. In The Shape of Things (and the series that has spawned from it), the creatures themselves don’t exist per se. Oh, they’re there, but it’s much more of a Jekyll and Hyde thing. Some people have this…thing inside them. They don’t necessarily know it until something draws it out. Usually, that’s a traumatic, life-changing, and possibly humiliating experience. In general, the idea is that something challenges their notion of their own humanity, which becomes the cause of their transformation into a being other than human. The forms they take are varied, and they don’t always align perfectly with our familiar monsters of legend, but there can be some similarities. (As for why this is happening, and why it’s happening so much in the present, I’m getting to that in the sequel, The Beast Within, which I’m currently writing.)

The novel itself is about 94,000 words, so not all that long. Call it tight, because there’s not much extraneous information in there. I started it at the beginning of May 2017, and the first draft was done on June 13. But here’s where it gets interesting. Writing Chapter 7 (of 16, plus a prologue and epilogue), I got bored. Seriously bored, and just plain tired of writing. So I stopped for about a week, long enough to switch over to another story I’d been working on. That was the first time in about 4 years that I’ve ever felt that way about a book. I won’t say it was my proudest moment. (It happened again in November, when I was working on The Soulstone Sorcerer, but I pushed through that. And I still hate myself for it.)

Despite that hiccup, I do think the book turned out good. Better than I thought when I finished it, definitely. I hope you’ll feel the same, but I’ve got more to say before I go.

The setting

As I mentioned above, The Shape of Things is set in our world. It’s not a fantasy version of it, but the real thing, just slightly dramatized. The protagonist, Cam, lives in Georgia, because I wanted him to be Southern, though far enough away from where I live that I could plausibly say he isn’t supposed to be me. He’s a little younger, maybe a bit smarter, and definitely a lot more successful, but he’s still a good old Southern boy at heart. And he’s mostly normal, apart from his odd hobby of hunting the paranormal for hire.

Cam is a skeptic, though. Not necessarily in the religious sense, but when it comes to the things he’s searching for. His default assumption is that whoever called him must be mistaken, because he knows these things aren’t real. Everybody sees ghosts, and every one of them, he believes, has some other explanation. And he feels the same about aliens, crop circles, demons, Sasquatch, and whatever else you can think of.

When the monsters really do show up, that puts him out of his league, and suddenly I found myself writing a horror thriller. Not at all what I expected, but I had some fun with it. A lot of his “backstory” sightings are based on things that actually happened to me, my family, or people I know. Others are references, but also from my personal experience. A group of “demons” in Marietta are actually Smite cosplayers, because my brother played that game constantly while I was writing. My mother really was scared by a hanger rattling from the air coming out of the vent under it. As this series progresses, I plan on adding in more of these, and I’m not ashamed to say that I’m doing it.

The conflict

Cam doesn’t really have to fight his monsters. He barely even chases them. Instead, this book is about the hunt. It’s about him learning the truth of the world, then conquering the fears that knowledge creates. And it’s about solving problems. He absolutely has to run from some of the creatures he finds, but there aren’t opposing forces trying to stop him. (Maybe not yet…)

In that sense, the monsters fill the role of villain, such as it is, but in the same way they would in a horror movie. I don’t mind that. I’m not great at writing fight scenes or cloak-and-dagger trickery. The Shape of Things is more about a man against a force of nature, that’s all. Sometimes, that even comes out literally, but it’s more often the nature of the beast.

The end

I wrapped up the novel fairly neatly. There aren’t a lot of loose ends left to pick up. Instead, the biggest question remaining is what happens next. Where do we go from here? Cam solves the case. He saves a man from a monster—the monster that man had become.

This was never going to be a standalone work. I knew that from the start. So the future of the series hinges on that part of the ending. The world is stranger than we think, and Cam now knows this. He’s seen it with his own eyes. Now, he has to learn just how strange it can be, and that is where we go. Future installments are going to look into that core mystery, even as they continue to follow our humble hunter on his investigations. Some of those close to him may be affected, but one thing is certain: his life will never be the same.

Otherworld talk 8

And so it ends. Well, the first season, at least. I’ll be revisiting the Otherworld for some time to come. But today, in the aftermath of Long Road’s End, let’s see how far we’ve come, and maybe where we’ll be going.


Each of the 7 main characters of the story grew. They learned, they improved—or so they like to think. The experience of the Otherworld was life-changing in most cases. In a few, it was instead life-affirming, but the principle is the same. After eighty days of living in a different world, a different culture, each takes something away.

Amy was the first character we saw, all the way back in Chapter 1 of Out of the Past. She spent most of her first morning in the Otherworld hiding in a corner, and she often had to be dragged or cajoled into helping with the overarching mission of survival. But that all changed with her first visit to the village of Alwan. The tiny town fit her like a glove, to the point where she learned to love her strange surroundings, and she most definitely went out on a high note. Now, she wants nothing more than to go back.

Jeff doesn’t have to go back; he’s already there. That’s a complete turnaround from the timid, nerdy linguist having nightmares of being left behind, but he’s got a very good reason. Okay, two reasons, the second being that he’s a young man who’s been snared by a borderline nymphomaniac. At least he realizes that much, and he does remember his goal in the coming months: to learn everything he can about the locals and their history, so the next group won’t have to go in blind.

Jenn doesn’t want to stay in the Otherworld, but she doesn’t mind visiting every year—but only if she’s in charge. Her biggest discoveries about herself were that yearning to be a leader and her faith. Put the two together, and she’s the most like the last group of people to find a whole new world full of Indians. But she did prove herself, and she wants the chance to do so again. Whether that’s as a leader, explorer, or missionary, she doesn’t really care.

Ryan was his own sort of leader. He had the charisma Jenn lacked, and he used that to immerse himself more in the local culture. That, in essence, was his plan all along, but he was really the only one out of the group who could pull it off. Maybe he spent two months on a summer construction job, but he feels those were productive months. Even his injury didn’t stop him; in reality, it gave him a new respect for the abilities of the natives. And now he sees the Otherworld as an opportunity to prove himself to, well, himself.

Lee, of course, had the most dramatic time of it. He sprained his ankle while falling into a lake, got married to a thief, saw her get abducted, rescued her, and made an enemy in his new home. His most important aspect remains his race—he’s the closest to the locals of anyone—but he spun that into an advantage. Now, he’s among people like those he always to meet, and he’s becoming one of them. In a way, his story is almost done, but those around him will have their tales to tell.

Alex started out as the geek of the squad, and so he remains. But he was able to take that and run with it, because the natives don’t see him as a nerd, but a wise, intelligent man. A teacher. One of them hopes to see him as much more, which leaves him baffled, but his experience in the Otherworld is all about learning and teaching. It may not be his kind of adventure, and he went through a rough middle portion of the journey. Since that didn’t kill him, he hopes it will make him stronger. It certainly made him thinner.

Ashley, last of our original seven, began her stay in the Otherworld as the feminist outraged at being stuck in a society dominated by men. She made friends—almost all women—because that’s how she is. And her specialty was sociology, so she felt it her duty to learn as much about the local culture as possible. That brought about her two most surprising revelations. For the native culture does, in its own way, like women just as much as men…and so does she. For Ashley, the hardest part will be dealing with these discoveries without letting them consume her.

Still to come

The remaining four members of the expedition didn’t get as much screen time, but they’re not forgotten, and that leads us into the plan for the future. There will be a Season 2. Right now, it’s titled Return to the Otherworld, though that may change.

Before that, however, I have a series of 6 shorter novellas, A Bridge Between Worlds. These cover the intervening time, because, if you’ll recall, there’s still nine months to go before the next time anybody can go through the gateway in Mexico. I didn’t want to pick things up then, as I’m not really a fan of skipping ahead like that, so this was my solution.

First up is “The Code Breaker”, centered around Lee and Nimiesa as they deal with troubles in their home and their potentially growing family. This one builds on some of the storylines first introduced in Episodes 7 and 8, as well as setting the stage for the rest of the “bridge” stories and Season 2.

That’s followed by “The Red Magician”, which, as you may expect, is Ayla’s story; Niel, the native student first met in Episode 6, has a supporting role as he tries to figure her out while she’s figuring out how best to bring science to a world that doesn’t really want it.

Next up is “The Control Variable”. This one’s a bit out of place, as it’s set on Earth. Following Amy and Alex, it’s almost a bit of a travelogue. They’re coming to terms with their journey, but also going around the country in search of the other Altea sites. Do they find them? You’ll see.

Fourth on the list is “The Dark Continent”, which only has a single point of view: Damonte. Except for that brief interlude at the end of Episode 8, he’s been missing for quite a while now. This is his story, almost completely apart from the others, and it’s our first real chance to get into his mind. As it turns out, that place can be darker than his skin, as he’s haunted by his last real encounter with the rest of the expedition.

Following that is “The Lessons Learned”. That one is Jeff’s story, as he delves into the history of the natives, hoping to find references to the even older Altea. But it’s also a story for Irai, because she has a tale to tell. Her chapters are a marked contrast to, say, Nimiesa’s; though they’re essentially in the same situation (in love with an Earthling), they treat it in two very different ways.

And last we come to “The Candle’s Flame”. The final bridge between Seasons 1 and 2 remains set in Mexico, following the other interplanetary couple: Ramón and Etanya. He brought her back with him for a reason, and this story is that reason. It’s also the only one of the set where it’s the native who’s the main character, but there’s a good reason for that: she’s the one out of place. She’s learning about a whole new world, and doesn’t that sound familiar?

This set of stories will come out through 2018. Hopefully, they’ll tide you over until I can finish Season 2. I’m hard at work on that, though, so you shouldn’t have to wait too long. I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey of mine. It’s had its highs and lows, its ups and downs, but I like to think I’ve created something great. No, I want to think I’m still creating it, because there are many more stories to be told in the Otherworld.

Otherworld talk 7

If the previous episode, Situational Awareness, was the high point of Chronicles of the Otherworld, sometimes I think its followup, A Peace Shattered, is the lowest. I don’t know why, honestly. It just doesn’t seem to stack up. It comes between two of my favorite parts, but it doesn’t compare to either of them. Maybe you feel differently, though. Anyway, let’s talk.


First off, I will freely admit that I had a hard time coming up with a plot for this one. All along, Chronicles was intended to be 8 parts, each with 8 chapters. It was a formula. And after I finished up Situational Awareness, I saw how to plan out the ending. But I had nothing to cover the weeks in between.

Thus was born the kidnapping sequence. It’s not my best, but I think it does an okay job of filling the gap. It’s plausible, and the actors involved might conceive of such a scheme. It ties up a loose end (Olof, from Episodes 5 & 6) while setting out another (Elgaan, who will be a thorn in Lee’s side for a while). It also brings together a few disparate parts of the expedition, connecting Ryan, Lee, Jenn, and Amy.

The natives don’t have a real police force. They don’t have a dedicated investigator to help solve the mystery of the disappearing doctor. That fits neatly into Jenn’s idea of herself as a vigilante (Episodes 4 & 6). On the other hand, Lee spends much of the time frustrated by a cultural difference: he isn’t allowed to participate in the investigation or interrogation, as he’s considered too partial.

There’s a lot of barely restrained rage on his part, a sharp contrast to the easygoing Lee of the first six episodes. And maybe contrast is what I was going for in this one, because a lot of characters end up acting different. But this is an emergency. One of their own has been taken, so they have to get serious.


The second subplot for this episode is the quick dig, with the bizarre trio of Alex, Jeff, and Ayla going back to the site of their arrival to find some answers. Well, they don’t find all of them, but they do get the big one: the timeline.

From the beginning, I imagined the Otherworld as a place first visited before the Ice Age. The Altea, whoever they were—even I don’t know yet—came from Earth, emigrating permanently once the glaciers started melting. True victims of climate change, if you will. They were technologically advanced, compared both to their Neolithic neighbors and the modern inhabitants of America, but they died out long ago, when their second world began to suffer the fate of their first. (This one comes into play a bit later.) The site in Mexico was not their only gateway between worlds, but it’s the only one in friendly territory, you might say.

We saw some evidence of advancement back in Episode 4, the first time our intrepid heroes began nosing around the site’s underground. Here we get even more, as well as ironclad proof of the timeline. That was an idea I had long before I started writing this episode. If the Otherworld can have some animals otherwise extinct (American horses, northern peccaries and tapirs, etc.), then why not others? Why not one of the most famous Ice Age extinctions of all? And that plants the seed in the characters’ minds, too: if these are here, what else is?

So the archaeological dig without any archaeologists finds two things that completely rewrite history. That’s the bombshell of the series, even more than the very existence of the Otherworld. But I like to think I played it well. The Altea didn’t guide Paleo-Indians or their Otherworld cousins. None of the native creations of the Americas belong to them, with the exception of the sites like Tamaulipas. And it’s mostly the same on the other side. By the time the Mayans came around, the Altea were nothing more than dust; by the time the expedition arrives in the Otherworld, they’re only remembered as legends.


After this, there’s only one episode left in the season. The finale, if you will, and it takes a bit of a different approach. So will I, in these talks, so I’m going to talk a bit about it now. First off, it uses a bit of a different structure. Because so many things are going on, it doesn’t follow the usual “POV rotation”. Instead, the first six chapters whip around, each following a single day of the story and changing focus as needed. Alex, Jenn, and Amy get a higher proportion of the attention, but that’s because they have more to do. Chapter 7 is even more different, as it’s made up of seven scenes, one for each character. And the final chapter of the season is an epilogue: five scenes, one each for the four expedition members who never got a chance to speak, and the last for their honorary twelfth member.

I’ll talk more about the happenings of Episode 8, titled Long Road’s End, after it’s out. But I’ll gladly say that it was a fun, enjoyable experience. It was a pleasure to write, unlike this one, where I sometimes felt like quitting. It’s a good thing I didn’t, as I hope you’ll see soon.

Otherworld talk 6

The latest part of Chronicles of the Otherworld came out the other day over at my Patreon. For those who are counting, that’s Episode 6, Situational Awareness, and it’s probably my overall favorite. For once, I felt like everything just…clicked. The two main plots meshed well, the characters all had a role to play, the overall story advanced, and I even had some good action scenes buried in there. I won’t say it’s perfect (nothing I write ever is), but I do believe this is the jewel of the series.

Relationships are a big part of Chronicles, and I’m not just talking about romantic and sexual relationships. No, the primary focus of the entire series is how the expedition members react with each other and the natives of the Otherworld. It may have started out as nothing more than a worldbuilding playground, but this story very quickly became a character drama. So let’s talk about that today.

Friends and enemies

Living among a people for two and a half months (it’s not quite that far yet, but it soon will be), it’s only natural that a group of intelligent, outgoing—except for Alex—and open young people are going to make friends. In the beginning, that was impossible, thanks to the language barrier, but now, later in the story, they have grown more comfortable in the Otherworld. Every one of the primary characters has at least one friend from the natives. Some, like Ashley and Ryan, have many more.

The indigenous people of the Otherworld are, well, people, so that’s why this is possible. It’s only natural. Indeed, I intended it that way from the start. Maybe not the exact faces that would fill the “friend” roles, but they were supposed to be making friends all along.

Their existing friendships also strengthen due to their shared experience. Ryan and Ramón, for instance, got to know each other in the original dig, and they only grow closer as the weeks progress. By the end of it, there is some strain starting to show, but they’re such good friends that at least one native sees them as like brothers. Amy and Sara are another example, as they were best friends before they left home; eighty days of living and working together, of relying almost wholly on one another, will leave them in much the same situation. (Although they do have one glaring difference, as you’ll come to learn.)

On the other side of the coin, not everybody is always friendly. Few are outright hostile from the start, a situation I feel is realistic. Yes, the Otherworld has its malcontents, and even racists, but the members of the expedition need time to earn even their ire. The Kaldea (Episode 5) have cultural reasons to be unfriendly; we’ll see more about that later on. This episode’s bandit leader Olof is a special case even for them, though.

Mostly, the reason there aren’t more enemies is simple expedience on my part. The main conflicts are environmental and personal in nature. There simply isn’t that much room for eleven (or more) enemies. Jenn has a nemesis now, and Lee is in the process of picking one up. Alex and Ayla hate each other…for the most part. And who knows what Damonte will get into in his solo adventure.

Natural urges

So that’s it for friends, but some characters have become somewhat more than friends. That was nowhere near part of the original plan, I’ll admit. At the start, I never intended the series to become so sexualized, but there it is. I justify this by saying that these are college students, young adults, and they’ve been placed in a stressful situation where they completely lack adult supervision. It’s only natural that some of them will give in to their baser instincts.

Ayla does it as stress relief; as we’ll see later on, she figures that, hey, nothing else works, so why not give it a shot? Lee was basically tricked into it, but it turns out that he doesn’t really mind. Jeff essentially thinks he’s won the lottery, and Amy—well, we’ll get to that soon enough.

In sharp contrast, Ryan turns down all such offers (mostly off-screen). Jenn, as you saw in this episode, is happy being friends with Bryn instead. Alex assumes his first time with Ayla is also his last (he’s wrong), and Ramón holds up his Catholic upbringing as a shield. It’s not that they aren’t tempted. They certainly are, as the culture they find themselves in simply doesn’t have the same sorts of taboos as ours. It’s a lot more open, a lot less restrained. But they refuse to indulge for their own reasons.

The natives pick up on all of this. After all, they’re not stupid. But they also see these newcomers (with a few exceptions) as the semi-mythical Altea. As Ashley explains in this past week’s episode: what poor, lonely woman wouldn’t want to improve her lot by getting together with what she sees as a demigod? It’s much different for the native men, a topic we’ll see picked up in Season 2, but many of the relationships that spring up stem from this.

And that was something I intended. Maybe I didn’t expect to take things this far, but…they did, and it works. Especially in this part. Next up is Episode 7, a case where I think much the opposite. I’ll see you then.

On rhythm and flow

What makes good prose? I wish I knew, because then I’d be rich. But I think it’s largely one of those subjective things, something different for different people. Still, I believe there are some constants. We can easily point to something and say, “That’s bad.” In most cases, what’s “bad” won’t even be up for debate. Defining “good”, on the other hand, is tricky, but let’s see what we can do.

Setup work

I don’t claim to be a great writer. I’m good at best, probably closer to mediocre. I do, however, think I write above-average prose. By that, I mean the actual words themselves, the sentence and paragraph structure. The skeletal structure of a book, if you will, where the story itself is the meat and flesh.

Good prose is in the eye of the beholder, so it may sound a bit biased for me to say that my prose is good. It’s a bit of the Dunning-Kruger effect: people tend to see themselves as better than they really are. But hear me out.

I recently read The Bands of Mourning by Brandon Sanderson. Now, Sanderson is one of my favorite authors, and he’s practically a legend when it comes to writing quantity, but this book really left something to be desired in the prose department. It’s a great story, although it comes off the rails a bit towards the end, and the worldbuilding is (as always for this author) top-notch.

Yet as I read it, I found myself wincing more than once at the prose. It’s clunky, jarring, and I can’t blame that all on necessity. See, I believe there is a time and place even for poor grammar. (Usually, that works best in dialogue, and I’m not afraid to write, for example, “me and him” when that’s what a character would likely say.) But this went beyond that. For a fairly long stretch in the prologue, it was like the author forgot how to use pronouns. Sentences were written in such a way as to be confusing, ambiguous. The whole thing read like something I would have written in school.

For the first time in the five years I’ve been serious about my writing, I couldn’t not compare a professional creation to my own, and I found the pro wanting. It was an odd feeling, though not one of pride. I’m most certainly not saying I’m a better writer than Brandon Sanderson. But I do find it strange how big this particular difference in quality was. Remember, I’m a self-published author. I can’t afford a dedicated editor. And yet I couldn’t help but think I was doing better.

Like a river

It took some time, but I finally figured out where this all came from. And that goes back to what I feel is one of the hallmarks of my writing style. I don’t go in for convoluted phrasing, a vast vocabulary, or anything like that. No, I place the greatest emphasis on flow.

Flow, as I define it (I’m not even sure it’s a real thing, much less something with an actual definition), is a kind of phrase-level rhythm. Writing flows if one phrase or sentence leads naturally and seamlessly into the next. For me, good flow realizes as an almost hypnotic quality. If I lose track of time while reading, then here’s a story with good flow. Story, characters, and worldbuilding all matter more, of course, but I find it easier to lose myself in a river of prose than jagged phrasal peaks.

Part of good flow is about making connections. That’s why I use a lot of compound and complex sentences for exposition, with dependent clauses and conjunctions everywhere. I also tend to digress, resulting in probably too many dashes, but even those fit in the flow, and I think a dashed-off (or parenthesized) phrase is better than an extra sentence that distracts from the main point I’m making.

Literary devices like alliteration and parallelism, both of which I use heavily, fit into the flow almost without even trying. Alliteration and assonance, for example, are like a pounding beat. Done properly, they don’t interrupt the flow, but enhance it. Similarly, parallelism has its own repetition, which I find to work a bit like a feedback loop: the flow only grows stronger until it’s finally released.

Changing the beat

Once I’ve set the flow for a story, changing up the rhythm has an immediate effect. The desired effect, at that. Short, clipped sentences indicate action, tension. Long, meandering thoughts are for introspection and reflection. And so on from there. That’s more of a general thing, but it’s a more noticeable shift when I’ve spent so long working on a flowing narrative.

But I still keep the elements of the flow, even when the beat changes. A key to good writing, I think, is nailing down when to change your narrator’s “voice”. It’s like when I write child characters, or the native characters in my Otherworld setting. There, although the flow itself remains, its nature changes. That provides a dramatic shift purely out of contrast, so you know that this character has a different way of thinking, of looking at the world. Maybe a child won’t go in for long stretches of pure thought—they’d get distracted halfway through—but they’ll have other ways of keeping this virtual beat.

By doing things this way, I’ve even made some parts of the editing process easier. I know when to rewrite a phrase, sentence, paragraph, or utterance if it stands out by virtue of its lack of flow. Like a wrong note or botched line, poor prose becomes obvious by its poor fit. Smoothing out those rough edges leaves me with something coherent, connected. Maybe not good, but I didn’t claim I was that.


All this is my own opinion. It’s not even an educated opinion, either, as I’ve never taken a formal writing class. Instead, I come by my opinions through thought, reasoning, and study. I can point to a work I’ve read and tell you how I feel about its prose, even if I may not use proper terminology to do so.

Of course, my opinion may not be the right one. It probably isn’t the right one for you. Still, I encourage you to consider what I’m saying. Think about how your own writing flows. Good prose, I have found, feels like floating down a river, or drifting at sea, or even just falling asleep. On the other hand, poor prose constantly jerks me awake, out of the moment and into reality. Maybe your feelings are different, but you won’t know until you find them.

Otherworld talk 5

The second half of Chronicles of the Otherworld has begun. You might say it’s all downhill from here, except…well, it’s really not. We haven’t hit the highest notes of this song quite yet. But we have seen a new episode released (The Bonds Between Us), so that’s a good excuse for a new chat about this setting from the man who created it. This time around, I want to take a deeper look at the “local” culture of the Otherworld, the Virissea. Personally, I feel they’re one of my greatest creations. To think, they started off as nothing more than a background element for their language.

The language

That one’s not even an exaggeration. As I’ve said numerous times, the initial seed for the Otherworld series came when Stargate Universe was canceled. Nobody was doing good “exploration” sci-fi anymore, or even exploration fantasy. (Monarchies of God is a great series in that vein, by the way.) Now, that’s not to say I thought I could do better, but I knew I could do better than nothing. Since nothing was what I had, how could I lose?

More importantly, though, the Otherworld setting started out as a kind of language playground. The details of the native tongue (as well as quite a few others in the setting) predate most other notes by months. And the one I called “Virisai” was first on the list.

As languages go, it’s nothing remarkable, and I intended that from the very start. This isn’t an alien language, because these aren’t aliens. That goes hand-in-hand with the “alternate timeline” setup. And yet I didn’t really want a typical Amerind language, because a lot of those are horrendously complex. There’s no way a bunch of college students could become anywhere near fluent in one of those in less than three months. But, I figured, since I had so much “alternative” time to work with, I could plausibly say that this is a whole new language family, as well, one that didn’t follow its brethren in development. In other words, it branched off too early to pick up some of the more convoluted aspects of American indigenous languages.

Beyond that, the language is fairly straightforward. It has a few hangups, a few unexpected complexities, and I’ve found ways to work some of those into the narrative. (Mostly, this comes in Jeff’s chapters, as he’s the linguist, though Amy occasionally notes one.) But I do intend it to be a “natural” constructed language. It’s meant to be spoken, written, read. In fact, I do have a translated Babel Text lying around somewhere, and I’ve considered doing other works when I have the free time.

The culture

The culture of the Virissea, like their language, shares that “same but different” quality. These people may look like your typical Native American, but they are certainly not American. They don’t fit the realities or the stereotypes. They’re there own thing, and most of the culture shock is about dealing with that other thing.

For those in the midst of the story, I’ve intentionally designed the culture to be not outrageously dissimilar from anything on Earth. The local Virissea are monotheistic, for instance, though there’s a strong hint of ancestor worship in there, too, and a fairly complex mythology regarding the otherworldly Altea, who supposedly helped to create the world after their own was destroyed in some previous cataclysm. As they looked different from the Virissea, those members of the expedition who look the most outlandish are seen instead as these mythical people: Jeff, Jenn, Ayla, Sara. Lee and Ramón, by contrast, get treated as some kind of prodigal sons, while Damonte is something else entirely.

Other parts of the culture likewise follow this trend. These people don’t have human sacrifices, but they do have some strange taboos and rituals. They may not play the Mayan ball game, but they’ve got one of their own. Their science isn’t nearly as advanced as ours, so advanced technology is seen as magic instead (following Clarke’s Third Law), but that’s okay, because they already have a mythos full of magic. They just fit computers and solar panels into that, and go on about their day.

That, I think, is my primary goal with this culture. Too often, we assume that modern Americans meeting a more “primitive” people will be treated as either gods or devils because of our technology, attire, beliefs, and general otherness. And to be fair, some members of the expedition get the godly treatment, but they don’t intentionally play to it—with one notable exception.

But there can be a third road, where we’re neither demonized nor canonized. Think about it. If you’ve never seen a tablet computer before, but you get told stories every week of a legendary hero who carried around a magic spellbook, it’s not that great a leap to equate the two. Either one is so far beyond you that it’s almost required by Occam’s Razor. But that doesn’t mean the guy carrying that tablet is a god, not when you’re also taught that there’s only one of those.

In other words, no matter how different the Virissea are, they’re still people. Humans. They have a civilization, a culture, and they’re desperately trying to fit these newcomers into their world without breaking too much. In other words, exactly what I would want to do if presented with a representative of an advanced alien race.

The others

And that makes a good segue into matters of race. For the Otherworld, the subject is a bit tricky. Everyone in it (except for our intrepid heroes) descends from the original inhabitants of the Americas. Yet some of them are…different. I’ll leave the whys for later, because I think the simple idea is enough to get started.

I did intend on having multiple human subspecies in the Otherworld from the start. (That is totally not me ripping off The Dagger and the Coin, except when it is.) And I even made them fit the classic fantasy stereotypes. The Lyssea, who show up again in this episode, are a reinterpretation of elves. The Kaldea beating down Ayla’s door fill the “dwarf” role. Even last episode’s Arassea work, as they started off in my head as vaguely orc-like. That’s not to say these races are their fantasy inspirations. Oh, no. But it’s a perfect excuse for some people—particularly a certain character very drawn to fantasy literature—to see them as such.

All told, there are ten total races in the Otherworld, if you count the Altea. (And if you don’t count the modern Earthlings of the expedition.) Some of them can interbreed; some of them would rather not. Each has its own culture, language, and outlook, and I use that to set up quite a few interesting plotlines. The Arassea slavery angle, for one, or the Kaldea and their cabal-like protection of their technology. On top of that, there are racial tensions, and even some outright racism. Why? Because the Otherworld is not a utopia. It’s imperfect, just like ours, and part of the story’s development is peeling back those layers to find the imperfections.

The upcoming

That’s all for this installment, but the chronicles will keep coming. Next up is Situational Awareness, which is my favorite episode of the first season. I loved writing it, I love reading it, and I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I do. Until then, have fun in either world, and be sure to look at my other stories.

Otherworld talk 4

At this halfway point in the first Otherworld season, I’d like to take a look at the storylines I’ve created, because some of them are, in my all-too-critical opinion, actually pretty decent.

The first

The main story, of course, is the accidental expedition to the Otherworld. That one hangs over everything, as it will throughout the remainder of the season. And this story brings with it a lot of others. It puts the focus on survival, adaptation, integration. It’s a story not only of exploration, but culture shock and the simple sense that, hey, we’re somewhere else. These characters are farther from home than they ever thought about going, and most of them aren’t exactly ready for something like that.

In a way, the “student dig” setup helps lead into that. For some, even leaving the country of their birth was hard, not to mention leaving the whole planet. Others were used to travel, or they’re used to the outdoors, and so it’s not quite as difficult for them. That creates a bit of friction, especially once you factor in the different personalities involved. Jenn, for instance, is always preaching safety and care (except when she’s involved), while Ryan continuously argues for more freedom and a deeper integration with the alien society. Amy has never really been away from home before—if you count college as “home”—while Lee’s was broken long ago. Everyone gets to cope with the reality of the situation in his or her own way, and the POV sequence, I think, allows a good look at that struggle through most eyes.

Alien life

Once the characters can accept the mess they’re in, mere survival is forgotten. They’ve already succeeded at that, so it’s time to move on. Being curious young men and women, it’s only natural that they immerse themselves in the world they’ve discovered. It’s not like the Spanish, where they deliberately set out in search of gold and glory. No, this was an accident. Some want nothing more than to get home as soon as possible, but the rest are perfectly willing to explore this strange place. Episode 3, for example, is all about that exploration.

But the Otherworld is much, much bigger than a couple of towns and villages. In Episode 4, as readers of the series have now learned, there’s a visit to a larger city in store. That change of scenery brings with it a chance to see a new side of the inhabitants of the world, and we’ll get to return to that a bit later on. As the story progresses (especially once we get past this first season), the Otherworld begins to open up. The characters find themselves in more locations, and each of those locations has its own unique perspective. They all fit into the story in different ways, and that was a very interesting part of the worldbuilding.

Action and suspense

It wouldn’t be a TV-style drama without action sequences and suspense. We see a bit of that in Episode 4, particularly Chapter 6. (No spoilers here, but I’ll gladly admit that the aftermath of that character death always strikes a chord within me. And I wrote it!) Later on, we’ll get a lot more. That’s not because I felt the need to fulfill a quota, so don’t think that. No, it’s just that the story seemed to be going in that direction.

Well, except for the action bits of Episode 7. That one was more because I couldn’t think of anything else to write, and I needed something to fill the last two or three weeks of in-story time.

Coping with reality

Ultimately, all the “side” plots, whether action, study, suspense, or simply learning to live within the strictures of the Otherworld, boil down to one: getting through the day.

For all of the main characters in the expedition, this whole journey ends up being a life-changing experience. Through the eighty days of the Otherworld, they grow, they change, sometimes in ways even they didn’t expect. In some cases, it’s like they become more of what they already were. For others, it’s a more fundamental change in attitude. A couple of them will even do a complete 180 on some of their opinions.

That was one of my goals with this series. I wanted to create a vibrant, living world, but I also wanted to make characters that would fit it. They can’t do that if they’re stuck being the same old people. No, they have to evolve, too. Sometimes, they evolve in ways I never anticipated—Ashley is the main one here, as you’ll see later on. Others (like Alex) mostly follow the trajectories I’d always envisioned. However it works, I’d like to believe that I succeeded in my goal of creating three-dimensional characters that act and react and grow and change like real people.

All along, that was what I wanted most, and there were many times that I asked myself what I would do in a particular situation. Knowing that, I could better guide my writing. As I have grown more comfortable with the characters, however, I find that I don’t need to ask myself that anymore. No, now I can ask what they would do, and I’d call that mission accomplished.

Keep it going

We’re halfway done with Season 1, but that’s nothing. We’ve still got four more of these little chat sessions to go, and then we can start looking at the postseason. Oh, and Season 2. As of this writing (about a month and a half before its posting date), I just finished a draft for the second episode of that. So don’t quit on me now. Unlike TV, this one isn’t getting canceled right as it’s getting good.

Otherworld talk 3

If all goes well (as far in advance as I’m writing this, it may not), the third episode of the Chronicles of the Otherworld should have hit my Patreon page not too long ago, and that means it’s time for another little chat. This time around, I want to talk about my choices of characters.

The expedition

I decided on the full complement of the expedition very early on in my writing, and there was very little that changed in the long period between Episodes I and II. Sure, my scrapping of the original subsequent stories did shift some things around, but almost all of the “core” details of the twenty characters from Earth remained the same.

The idea of the “student dig” was pretty much the seed of the Otherworld saga. I needed a reason for all these college-age kids to be together, to be educated, and to be ready to survive. Thus the team was born, and the eleven who made the interplanetary journey were always going. I’ll admit a bit of convenience in the way that the older adults are absent (the storm in Out of the Past), but I think that’s well within the bounds of artistic license.

These eleven were the team from the start, and the seven POV characters were also chosen essentially before the first word of the series was written. Following my idea of this being a TV-style episodic drama, there are the requisite nods to diversity, though I do despise the often forced style that Hollywood seems to prefer. In this case, I don’t have a problem with it, because the framework of the story practically requires it. This is a university-sponsored archaeological expedition, so of course there will be a mix of men and women. They’re digging in Mexico, so it’s only natural that the party would include a Latino. Yes, the cast is diverse, but every member of the team has a reason to be there. They’re not just shoved in to fill a quota.

The main seven, in particular, have their positions for two reasons. One, I felt they had the best stories to tell, while the four “secondary” members of the party were mostly going to be in the background, largely overshadowed by others in the team. (Admittedly, this decision came about before some of those four went in wildly different directions than initially intended.) Second, though, each one, I feel, reflects a part of my own personality. They’re my own personal rainbow, in a sense.

The optimist

Amy is the first character introduced in the story, and she also has the distinction of being the last of the “main” cast to be the focus of a scene. (Yeah, that’s a spoiler for Long Road’s End. Sorry.) She’s an eternal optimist, something I sometimes wish I could be. I wouldn’t call her aloof or anything like that, though. She’s just one of those naturally happy people. She might be hesitant to try new things, but she’ll give it her all once she accepts them. Sometimes even more than that, as you’ll see in later episodes.

This optimism works as a narrative device, too. It takes a lot to get her upset, so when she finally is, that makes it even more powerful. (Hint: wait until Episodes V and VI.) Writing her chapters always cheers me up, because she has an…innocence about her that borders on childlike, especially when it comes to the wonders of the Otherworld. In a sense, Amy is how I wish I could see myself.

The linguist

Chronicles of the Otherworld, and indeed the whole Otherworld setting, was started as a linguistic playground, so it’s no wonder that I’d have a linguist as one of the main characters. At first, Jeff doesn’t really know what he’s doing, but he finds a purpose once it’s clear that somebody has to step up and be the communicator. You might think he’s there for no other reason, but he works as a kind of outsider—he’s not an archaeologist by trade, so he doesn’t really know all the rules. And (spoiler alert) he gets into some pretty hairy situations later in the series.

Jeff illustrates my own fascination with languages, obviously, but his role is more than that. He’s someone who can bear the brunt of the “info dumps” regarding the tongues of the Otherworld. Even better, as he’s the most knowledgable about them, his chapters tend to have fewer untranslated words and phrases. Unless, of course, he’s the one doing the translating.

The wanderer

Jenn has the third chapter in Out of the Past, and the first where the whole “alien artifact” thing is on display. Later on, in the Otherworld, she becomes the de facto leader of the wayward expedition. Now, I’m not a leader. Far from it. And I’m also not religious in the slightest, unlike this particular character. So she may not seem like that much of a reflection of me, but she is. As much as I hate to say it, she echoes my frustration with the world when it fails to live up to my expectations.

More than that, though, Jenn represents my burning desire to make things better. She doesn’t always succeed—I almost never do—but that won’t stop her from trying. When she has the narrative voice, it’s full of her thoughts about doing just that. (Wait till you see Episode VI!) Yes, she gets angry when she fails, but who doesn’t? Finally, Jenn is a challenge, because she’s one case where I’m way out of my comfort zone. By the end of the first season, she’s positively zealous. If I ever get that way, somebody needs to have me locked up.

The manager

Ryan’s fourth on the list, and he is somewhat of a conundrum. Again, he’s another leader type who is pretty much my exact opposite, and he’s also athletic, so even less like me. Still, he’s a character that fits me, because he looks at the world in much the same way I do. He’s a counterpoint to Jenn’s sometimes overbearing leadership style, and he has a certain charisma that leaves me envious.

Most of Ryan’s chapters tend to focus on the big picture, and that’s another way he reflects me. That’s my strategic and managerial thinking coming through, honed through all those years of playing building and strategy games. And he’s a bit of a diplomat, always looking to defuse an argument before it blows up in his face. That’s something I strive for, too.

The joker

Fifth in order of appearance is Lee. Storywise, he exists for one reason: the inhabitants of the Otherworld are descended from the indigenous population of the Americas, and so is he. He’s closer to them than any other member of the team, and I saw that as a great breeding ground for storylines. Then, as I began to flesh out his character, he became the comedian of the team, the kind of comedian whose best jokes are about himself.

Lee is sarcastic, even acerbic, and he has an edge to him that comes from the pivotal moments in his life. He knows he’s intelligent, but he’s not afraid to call himself stupid when things go awry. Out of all the men on the team, he’s probably the most emotional. In other words, he’s just like me, and that’s probably why his chapters tend to have the longest and most frequent thought sequences.

The thinker

Alex, by contrast, is me for a different reason: he’s how I see myself. Out of shape, introverted, he knows his place in society, and he’s grown to make it his own. He takes pleasure in others’ misfortune because he figures that’s the only kind he’s going to get. His internal monologues and narration are a lot like Lee’s, in fact, but with a lot more despair and self-loathing. In a way, he became my release valve for negative emotions, in the same way Amy is my indulgence in the positive.

Besides all the negativity, Alex is the closest thing the expedition has to a scientist, and that makes him more valuable there than he would be here. Lots of interesting character conflict there, although his is usually internal. Naturally, his chapters also tend to focus on the two worlds, the mechanism that sent them to the Otherworld, and how they can go home—later on, he even has to wrestle with the question of whether he wants to go back. And finally, I’ll admit that Alex later becomes a bit of wish-fulfillment on my part, especially once Season 2 gets started. You’ll see what I mean.

The enigma

Ashley is the last of the seven to receive her first chapter, though the second to get another. To start, she’s the “tough girl”, the classic girls-rule feminist who’s always looking for a reason to be offended. As she realizes that the Otherworld isn’t oppressive to women in particular—it oppresses everyone equally, for the most part—she does soften up, though she does have a number of moral constraints that she isn’t afraid to enforce on others. (And she has what she believes is a very dark secret, which comes out later in the season.)

How does she fit in? For the story, she’s the eyes and ears for the cultures of the Otherworld. That’s her specialty, so her chapters are full of such minutiae. She makes her own clothes (and hates every second of it), and she makes friends at the same time. How she connects to me, on the other hand, is a lot harder to say. I’m not friendly, and I’m pretty much the exact opposite of a feminist. But I’m interested in the way things fit together, the way people work, and that’s Ashley’s thing.

The rest

The other four main characters in the expedition don’t get to be the center of attention until the final chapter of Episode VIII. (Three of them get their own stories in A Bridge Between Worlds.) They’re secondary, and it shows. Mostly, they began as filler, so it took me a long time to “find” them.

Ayla began as a foil for Alex, but then I got the idea of her becoming a kind of mad scientist, which plays out later in the season and in her story. Ramón originally had no purpose other than to sprain his ankle in Episode III (in the rewrite, that’s Lee’s job), and Season 1 doesn’t give him a lot to do that doesn’t appear through the lens of Ryan. Sara does very little at all, but she’s a nice counter to Amy’s boundless enthusiasm. And Damonte might seem like the token black guy, but he’s anything but: for one, he knows that’s what he is. (Episode IV, coming next month, gives him a lot of screen time, but…don’t expect too much after that, at least until Bridge.)

The four professors were never intended to be much more than quest-givers, although William’s role has greatly expanded in Season 2. The same is mostly true for the others of the expedition, those five that didn’t go to the Otherworld. You won’t be seeing them again until Episode VIII, and most of them barely serve any purpose until Bridge or Season 2. Antonio, for instance, is basically just an extra, while Tyler becomes a bit of a running joke.

To be continued

Some of the characters might not be that important to the story, but all of them are important to me. As Chronicles slowly morphed into a character drama, the eleven unlucky students, their nine Earthbound companions, and the multitudes they meet in the Otherworld all had to become something more. The top seven, being the faces of the story, all exemplify different parts of me, yet they’re also their own people. The rest are left more to their own devices, but I hope I’ve done a good job of letting them all speak for themselves in their limited opportunity.

Technically, Episode IV (Written in Black and White) comes out this month, on the 29th. However, due to scheduling concerns, I’ll most likely post the fourth Otherworld Talk entry the week after, on or around Labor Day. By then, I might be deep into writing Season 2, or I may have given up. Who knows?

Otherworld talk 2

Last month, I started talking about the Otherworld, one of my most developed and beloved story settings. Well, the second part of the series is out now on my Patreon, so I thought it’d be a good idea to write down a few more thoughts about it.

The world I know

As I said then, the Otherworld is an Earthlike planet. It’s compatible enough in climate, etc., that it could be terraformed by humans and turned into what is essentially an alternate world. The only true difference is that all that terraforming took place before America was colonized by Europeans. Before the Columbian Exchange.

Making that work required a lot of effort on my part. For the first time, I delved into such esoteric topics as anthropology, agriculture, materials science, and so on. Here, I was building a world almost from scratch, and the first thing I had to do was see what tools I had to work with. Those, as you might expect, were fewer in number than if I’d placed the setting on the other side of the Atlantic.

What I took out of all this is simple: the Americas have all the pieces needed for advanced civilization. It was only a quirk of history that prevented the New World from developing ironworking or the wheel. The Otherworld doesn’t have those quirks, and I justified that by placing the point of divergence far, far, into the past. It’s not a case of “oh, a bunch of Indians got sucked into a wormhole”. No, this setting presupposes an almost completely parallel development, one where even our most basic notions about the indigenous population of the Americas may be mistaken.

There are cultural similarities. Working through the lens of the characters I’ve chosen, these are sometimes magnified, and often compared with their Earthly cousins. Some of the natives of the Otherworld are plains nomads. Some built step pyramids like those in Mexico. Yet there are many more differences, and that is the focus of the series as a whole.

Formula one

In a way, I’ve made the individual books of the Otherworld series somewhat formulaic. For the first season, there’s a definite repeating structure: 8 chapters, 7 points of view. One of those is repeated, and it’s a different one each time, usually whichever one has the most impact on the episode’s storyline. For the final installment, Long Road’s End (coming in December), I changed things up a bit. It’s still 8 chapters, but they’re no longer restricted to a single focus. Instead, the first six switch back and forth among those same characters, each one covering a day in the life of the Otherworld. Chapter 7 (Spoiler: that’s when they can come home) has 7 scenes: one for each point of view. And the finale, Chapter 8, is a kind of epilogue to the whole season, containing one scene each for the four non-POV members of the expedition, as well as a character who grew very close to them.

At times, this structure felt a bit constraining. I had a tough time coming up with reasons to focus on some of the characters who weren’t quite front and center. (This is especially true, in my opinion, in Episode V, The Bonds Between Us. I feel that it’s the weakest story by far.) Yet it was also liberating, in a way. By forcing myself to work in this fashion, I was able to naturally build the connections between differing parts of the story; setting up “B” plots and sidetracks was almost automatic.

For the interstitial stories, I went with a slightly different approach. They’re much shorter, for one, weighing in at only about 25-30K words instead of 50-60K. They’re all 5 chapters each, and all but one (the fourth, The Dark Continent) have a matched pair of protagonists. As these were mostly “get over” stories, I thought this more limited setup worked better.

Now that I’m writing Season 2, I’m moving things around again. With the addition of new characters, and the way the story is progressing, I’ve expanded each episode to 10 chapters, each slightly shorter than before. The rotation is a bit “looser”, as well, so some characters might not get a chapter in each episode, and there won’t always be a repeat. As they’re becoming mostly teamed and paired up, this shouldn’t be a problem; there will almost always be another POV character around to pick up the slack.

Heart of the matter

The overarching storyline of the Otherworld series is the world itself. It’s there, and its existence is the single most defining aspect of the story. We see it first by accident. Then, starting with Episode II, it becomes not only integral to the setting, but it’s a source of drama, action, conflict. It’s more than a backdrop, because of the simple fact that it’s so unknown.

But that doesn’t mean that everything is about exploring. Indeed, once the wayward characters come to terms with their situation, true exploration quickly fades into the background—for the time being. With that, the series slowly transitions into a kind of character drama, though I throw in the occasional action sequence for good measure.

Sometimes, I’m not entirely sure what I was thinking with these, but I’m happy with the result. Over the course of 8 episodes, every one of the 11 main characters shows growth, development. They come into their own, and they each follow their own trajectory through the main story. There’s love and loss, there’s good times and bad. They have their arguments, and they often feel lost, homesick. Maybe it’s the length of the series, but I’ve never come out of a work with as good a feel for the characters. Not my own, anyway.

And most of those characters, I hope, come across as real. That’s what I wanted from the Otherworld: verisimilitude, that feeling that this could be a real place, that these things could happen. The characters might be fictional, but I didn’t want them to feel fake. With the Otherworld, I think I succeeded far beyond anything else I’ve ever written.

The road goes on forever

You know, I think I’ll make this a regular thing, because there’s so much I want to say on this subject. So that’s what I’m going to do: every time there’s a new story posted in the Otherworld saga, I’ll post something like this up here. Call it decompression, a postmortem, or whatever have you.

Otherworld talk 1

Over at my Patreon, you may have noticed a recent release, entitled Out of the Past. It’s a short novel (or long novella, whichever you prefer) I originally wrote back in 2013, then updated over the past year or so, and it is the first in what I hope is a long line of stories which take place in the fictional setting I call the Otherworld. By the time this post goes up—assuming nothing bad happens in the weeks since I wrote it—I’ll have written a total of 14 works in this setting: the 8 original novels of Chronicles of the Otherworld and a collection of six side stories, A Bridge Between Worlds. Back here at Prose Poetry Code, I’d like to delve a bit deeper into the inner workings of this particular creation.

Origin story

Begin at the beginning, they say, and the Otherworld began a few years ago, sprouting from a two-headed seed. First, I was a bit upset at the cancellation of Stargate Universe (just as it was getting good), which left no real “exploration” sci-fi on television—there’s still not much there, by the way. Second, I like inventing languages, and I had recently begun looking into the cultures that would speak those languages.

Otherworld brings together both of those ideas. The story itself is pretty unspectacular: a bunch of college kids get sent to a medieval-style world, where they have to find a way to survive until they can come home. I originally built the world as a playground for my conlangs, as well as a chance to write a story involving exploration, first contact, culture shock, and other such notions. The whole thing is about being taken out of your comfort zone, and the Otherworld saga has, over the course of four years and half a million words, evolved greatly from that point. I sincerely hope it’s for the better.

False start

As I said, the first part, Out of the Past, was written in November 2013, although it didn’t have a title back then. I even went on to write two and a half more parts (I call them episodes, as the format is meant to mimic a TV series) after that, but I’ll freely admit that they were awful. Halfway through Episode IV, I gave up. I was bored with the setting, and I wanted to move on. So the Otherworld went back onto the shelf, and I thought little more about it for a year and a half.

In 2014, I wrote Before I Wake, as you may know. After that, I started looking through my notes and ideas for something new. At first, I settled on the beginning of what has become the Linear Cycle, plus the “Miracles” short story I’ve put up here at the site. Then, I digressed into the unfinished work currently titled Lair of the Wizards.

That one was the key, I think. Its setting was almost a mirror image of the Otherworld: a bunch of kids in a medieval world find a cache of advanced technology that they see as magic. A kind of novel-length restatement of Clarke’s Third Law, if you will. But writing that got me thinking of the other way around, of the advanced people going to the primitive world. Well, I already had one of those in the works, so why not?

Back in the saddle

So the end of 2015 saw me heading back into the Otherworld, but things were different now. All along, I’d had the idea that the fictional world was connected to Earth. It had to be, for how else would the characters get there? And if it was connected, then it was always connected, which served as a neat explanation for how the inhabitants could get there. More importantly for story purposes, it was the perfect excuse for how they could be human.

The people of the Otherworld are human. That was an ironclad rule I had when I first devised the setting. They weren’t aliens, even if some of them were a bit…altered. (The idea of different races of genetically modified humans actually came about very early on, partially from the D&D campaign my brother and I have made.) But the humans had to get there somehow, and thus I had to begin filling in the backstory.

Again, I did a lot of this back in 2013. It was then that I worked out the sketch of a timeline for the setting’s prehistory. The timing is just barely within the realm of believability, and it’s even within the margin of error of our current archaeological knowledge. But I had to go back and change a lot of specifics to match my assumptions.

The core assumption, of course, is that the Otherworld is derived from the New World. At no point until the present day of the stories (2019, chosen for no reason other than because I didn’t want to risk a tropical storm name being retired) was it ever so much as visited by anyone of European descent. At some point in 2015, I lost myself in research as I looked for a way to make that work. What do they eat? What can they make? How does their technology compare with their Earthly counterparts? (The last was the hardest, as the diverging point is so far in the past that it’s before civilization even began. Fortunately, that almost gives me a blank slate.)

Reset button

After a bit of editing work on Out of the Past, mostly to make it match my new findings, I started on the second episode, The City and the Hill. According to my notes, I finished the first draft on November 26, 2015. The next three followed in quick succession, then I took two months off in May and June of 2016. (That was for the Linear Cycle and Lair of the Wizards, in case you’re wondering.) The final three parts of “Season 1” took up the summer months, ending on September 25.

Even when I was writing the final words of Episode 8, Long Road’s End, I didn’t think I was done. Oh, no. The Otherworld is more than just these eight stories, and it was like that all along. I’d intended from the start to write a second season, a new set of stories that would build upon the foundation that these laid down. The way I wrote, however, meant that I needed something to bridge the nine-month gap that the stories’ structure required.

Thus came A Bridge Between Worlds. This is a story spoiler, so be warned. Some of the characters do not end Episode 8 on their home planet. The bridge novellas were intended to tell their stories. Well, five of them do. The sixth (actually, the third in sequence) ties up a few loose ends from Season 1 while setting the stage for events in Season 2. And that is coming, if I have anything to say about it. I’d like to start writing it later this year, but we’ll have to see.

Moving on

In the coming months, I’ll talk a lot more about the Otherworld setting. It’s my favorite creation, and there have been times over the past four years where I’ve lost myself completely in it. I’ve thought about it in the shower (where some of my best plots and character moments are born). I’ve dreamed about it. I don’t want to give it up, and I know that the world still has more to give. Some authors have a whole shared universe for their works, but I’m content with a single planet, a single world.