Behind the Scenes of “Transmutation”

Yay! My latest flash fiction story “Transmutation” is available to read for FREE only today on Havok’s website. It’s a short fantasy-mystery about an eccentric alchemist using her skills to shorten her dungeon sentence. If you’ve already finished it, here’s a little background on how I wrote it. (And if you haven’t read it yet and it’s any day after April 1, 2019, you can become a member for a very small fee to get access to it and all of Havok’s other stories!)

Similarly to “When Magic Died,” this story was written specifically for this month’s theme (reform) and the day’s genre (mystery). I had been thinking about incorporating alchemy for one of Havok’s earlier themes (recycle), but that ended up going nowhere. I decided to revisit the idea since one of medieval alchemy’s goals was to transform things into other things. But since I wasn’t sure if that would be a strong enough connection to “reform,” I also wanted to try to have a character change their ways. But I still wasn’t sure where the mystery element came in.

I thought about that part for a while. I didn’t feel confident trying to put all the mystery tropes in a flash fiction piece—I just wanted to treat it as the moment where a key clue is revealed. But how would it all tie together

I’m not ashamed to say it all fell in place while I was waking up one morning (get your sleep, kids!). Since a big part of medieval alchemy was trying to turn common metals into gold, I decided to use that to give the main character a criminal history. They would be imprisoned for using alchemy to pass their own gold off as official currency, but then called on to help solve a case involving alchemy of a far more nefarious sort.

I knew this backstory wouldn’t be a big part of the actual story’s plot (the reason for Ryla’s imprisonment/im-dungeonment only gets a passing reference), but I felt it did offer a starting point for the character to reform. I had a loose idea of the alchemist character uncovering a criminal plot to deconstruct … everything …. to rebuild it a new way. With this rough idea settled on, I felt like I had enough to start writing.

Up until this point, I hadn’t thought much about the alchemist’s character. I decided to make her a woman because I was really concerned about the story turning into an all boys’ club. (As it turned out, the other two, less interesting characters were both male, so I’d say this was the right choice.) But I also wanted to give her a unique personality to both a) clash with the more “professional” guardsmen/pseudo-detectives and b) bring a little more life into this search for clues.

I settled on a Jack Sparrow-type characterization, which mostly manifests in her dialogue. At first you don’t quite get her, but if you watch long enough, you see that her unpredictable attitude and esoteric plans do have a purpose. In my head, years of alchemy have left their mark on her, due to her experiments strengthening her connections to the core elements, but also driving her slightly insane and causing her to disassociate from the real world. It’s kind of the same way that hatmakers were affected by working with mercury, leading to the phrase “mad as a hatter.” … In fact, mercury was one of the elements that medieval alchemists often worked with. It’s all connected!)

With Ryla being brought to a investigation already underway, I needed to come up with a way for her to use alchemy to reveal a clue that the guards would have missed. And for the sake of word count, I needed it to be somewhat simple. This led me to lean into alchemy from the angle of the four elements, which is what fantasy typically focuses on when it introduces the subject.

This is how I came up with the idea of placing each of the elements at the corner of a page to reveal hidden writing. (Not mentioned in the story: every manuscript designed this way is treated to be fireproof, waterproof, and rot-proof—but other than that, they’re quite destructible!) I’ve never seen/read this done in stories related to alchemy before, so it seemed like a plausible “a-ha!” moment for the reader. But if you have seen it done, please let me know in the comments!

For better or worse, the segment of revealing the secret writing ended up using more words than I expected, which meant the first draft of this rushed to a) reveal what the mystery alchemist is up to and b) demonstrate Ryla’s reformation. In the rush, the story almost shifted to Desail as the main character, focusing on him becoming overwhelmed with learning about alchemy’s power and asking Ryla to help track the mystery alchemist down.

Ryla had a great line in this version after Desail asked her to help: “Is that even a question? Yes I’ll help you catch this loon and quite possibly save the world. I may be a fraudster, but I’m no sadist.” Classic Ryla. But the ending overall could be stronger, as editor Lisa Godfrees rightly pointed out in her feedback. She identified that the story needed to be more about what the mystery alchemist was up to, or Ryla’s reformation. With the word count, it’d be hard to do both.

Since the segment with the elements and manuscript took a good chunk of the word count, I concluded that the story was more about the mystery alchemist’s intentions than Ryla. So—in an effort to build tension—I shifted things around and had Ryla take longer to figure out exactly what the other alchemist was up to. I like to think there’s still an undercurrent of her reformation in the final story. But even if it’s not there, there’s still the reformation of the whole world to worry about!

Have any questions or comments about “Transmutation,” how it came together, or alchemy? Feel free to post below right here, or under the story on Havok’s website. And make sure you keep following them on social media or become a member for even more awesome flash fiction stories. Thanks for reading!

Behind the Scenes of “When Magic Died”

Happy new year, all! I’m excited to announce that my latest flash fiction story “When Magic Died” has just been published on the new Havok Publishing website. If you’ve already finished it, read on to learn a little about how the story came together. If not, go check it out now — because it’s only available to read for free today (January 2nd)!

Like previous stories submitted to Havok (when it was an imprint of Splickety), I wrote “When Magic Died” specifically for the theme. But this time was a little different. The theme for the whole month of January is rebirth, but I also needed to decide which genre/day to submit to (mystery, sci-fi, humor, thriller, or fantasy). I sat on this decision *for a while*. Then, in late October, I saw them put out a call for submissions for the humor genre. I took that as a sign, and started brainstorming.

Taking the theme very literally, I figured that something would need to die at the beginning of the story. Since fantasy is my preferred genre, I thought about what kinds of things would die in a fantasy story — and pretty quickly thought of chosen heroes’ quests to do something like save the world. I figured the humor part would come from the hero failing their quest right at the beginning, then doing just as bad a job when they’re invited to be part of the rebirth.

I considered having the hero fail a quest to save the world, but I felt that I wouldn’t be able to describe a world-rebuilding scene without ripping off The Neverending Story. The idea of magic dying struck me as a good replacement, so I ran with that. It seemed like it would be fun to write about an adventurer who’s supposed to help rewrite the laws of magic, but ends up doing so in a very unconventional way.

In terms of writing the story, that was the only outline I worked with. Most of my other flash fiction stories are a little more plotted-out before I start writing. But I figured I’d do better at being funny if I took more of a discovery-writing approach. That way, things would feel more natural instead of being forced in a particular direction.

So when I started writing, some things came more easily than others. I wanted to get to a joke as quickly as possible so I could readers’ expectations from the beginning. The set-up “magic was dying … had the nerve to do just that” was an idea that stuck from early on, and (especially in the first draft), it gave me some space to be not-as-funny in describing the opening scene in more detail.

Which felt like a mini-saga of its own. Since I knew most of this piece would be driven by dialogue, I originally wanted to cram so much information right in the first couple paragraphs to make sure readers understood the point of the quest, show how magic died, establish the dragons in the story, etc.

It was all pretty superfluous, which is a recurring theme in most of the early paragraphs of my flash fiction. Thanks to some incisive editing, the final version gets to the meat of things much quicker — and lets me reference the enormous collections of random objects collected by questers (especially in video games). If this story hadn’t already been so close to 1000 words, you can bet that list would’ve been a lot longer and weirder.

As I wrote, I figured a lot of the humor was going to be juxtaposing traditional, almost regal, high fantasy elements with more modern and banal bits. I’m not well-versed enough in comedy theory to understand why, but I just think it’s funny to have a fantasy world where dragons say things like “Missed it by that much,” and “A magic system. You’re supposed to come up with a magic system.”

I was happy with the way Dave (so named because I thought a non-fantasy-sounding name would be funnier) came together as I wrote. My initial thought was that his character would be just shy of competent. Which is funny, but can also become moderately annoying. Fortunately, when I settled on snark and sarcasm being the basis for magic at the end, I realized it would need to be part of his character during the story (instead of just thrown in at the very end). I feel like that gives him some agency earlier on, especially when the dragons are suggesting different magic systems.

Which leads back to the conversation between Dave and the dragons. As mentioned earlier, I tried exercising my discovery-writing (and comedic) muscles with this story. I enjoyed the challenge of balancing things that just seemed funny with beats that would push the story forward. This made it nice to have five different characters playing off one another — no matter who inserted a wry comment or made a joke, there was always someone to steer things back on track. Five characters in a flash fiction story really is madness, but I was fortunate that this one could revel in it.

And, in case the topic comes up, I take zero issue with developed magic systems, haha. It just seemed like a fun thing to play with in the event of one being entirely erased.

Of course, I can’t talk about what went on behind the scenes without mentioning editors Lauren Hildebrand, Gen Gavel, and Andrew Winch. The story is much stronger than the first draft thanks in no small part to their help and insight, and I’m super honored that they selected it as Havok’s inaugural Wacky Wednesday story! Thanks all 🙂

Have any questions or comments about “When Magic Died” — the story itself or how it came together? Feel free to post below or under the story on Havok’s website. And make sure you keep following them on social media or become a member for even more awesome flash fiction stories!

Behind the Scenes of “Special Delivery”

As you may have seen, my latest story was published in this month’s issue of Splickety. And to follow up, I wanted to share a brief behind the scenes look at how “Special Delivery” came together.

Like other stories for Splickety, this one started with a theme, which was “Christmas abroad.” I personally have always been in the U.S. at Christmastime, so drawing inspiration from real life was out. I did want to make sure there was some type of conflict in the course of the story, but without much familiarity with other countries’ Christmas customs, I wasn’t sure what to work with. Fortunately, I do have experience with an obstacle that can easily be translated anywhere else in the world: running late for a flight.

Splickety emphasizing YA in its imprint this year, combined with the abroad theme, meshed perfectly in the idea of a couple students returning from a semester abroad. In this respect, the story was loosely inspired by real life, since I also gave my brother a Venetian mask after visiting Italy in college. It was also convenient that the different language offered an easy way to incite action (by realizing that the book wasn’t in English).

One area of inaccuracy probably lies in how I portray the airport. I spent … an unreasonable amount of time trying to figure out what shops exist in the Leonardo Da Vinci airport. And my story probably makes it sound a lot bigger than it actually is (as near as I can tell, it just has three terminals). And I really doubt that there are souvenir carts with Venetian masks in the terminal. And I can’t even say that they sell Venetian carnival masks anywhere besides … Venice. BUT all of that seemed more believable than the idea that anyone would leave the airport to find a gift that close to their plane leaving.

In fact, the first draft of this story gave the guys way too much time to get back to their plane. At first, I was concerned about keeping things realistic. But as I read through, I realized that the realism was detracting from the tension. So I kept scaling back the time they had to get back to their gate. Ideally, you shouldn’t have to choose between realism and tension. But if you do, always go with tension. Maybe Nathan’s just really bad with time management.

Regarding the end of the story, I think this is the first time I’ve had a total scene break in a flash fiction piece. I toyed with introducing the mask in the airport and ending the story there, but I think it works better as it’s being opened on Christmas day. This also helped address the issue that the bulk of the story doesn’t have that much to do with Christmas (other than the conceit of looking for a gift). Overall, I think the scene break worked, though I think it’s best to avoid them when possible if a story is less than 1000 words.

Overall, “Special Delivery” was another great writing exercise. It felt quite normal to be writing a Christmas story in August/September, because I’m doing the same stuff at work, haha. If you’re interested in reading it in a collection of fun, short Christmas stories to celebrate the season, make sure you get your copy (of the last issue) of Splickety today!

Behind the Scenes of “Road Tripping”

As you may have already seen, I had another story published in Splickety this month! This month’s theme is senioritis, so I wrote a story about a graduating senior whose plan to go road tripping with his friends nearly derails … before an unexpected ally steps in to save the day. If you haven’t read it yet, make sure you do before reading the rest of this post!

I should begin by saying this story was not inspired by any personal experience of either making or missing a road trip after graduation.The theme’s prompt specifically mentioned pranks, proms, and college applications, but I wanted to try to come up with a concept different than those situations. I can’t trace the road trip idea to anything in particular, but I think High School Musical 3—and specifically Troy Bolton’s car troubles—were a subconscious but significant influence.

And therein lay my first challenge: Coming up with a car problem that would genuinely jeopardize road trip plans, but could also be solved relatively quickly. This issue would also need to cost a significant amount of money that a teenager could realistically have saved up. (I have no idea how much teenagers make/save these days.) This is a very specific problem.

So I found myself trying to identify a specific car problem that I didn’t have. Usually, people know what the issue is and they want to find out how much it cost and how easy it is. I was doing the reverse. After many google searches about common car issues and estimates, I eventually landed on having a tire blow out. Even though replacing one tire would average about $150, I figured the parents insisting on replacing all of them would be a good way to drive that up.

In terms of plot, I knew from the beginning that I wanted the main character’s younger brother to save the day. My relationship with my own younger brother was a very loose influence. The element that I wanted to highlight how even emotions like annoyance have an undercurrent of familial love. I think I achieved this better with the younger brother, particularly in his reactions to the older brother’s cluelessness. The line “Just trying to be nice, you moron” is probably my best sentence to date. Classic.

But seriously. Even while I was writing the story, I knew the main character had a couple things working against him. He wasn’t very sympathetic, and he wasn’t proactive at all. In any other situation, I would have modified the story to focus on the younger brother. He has those in spades. But since the theme was senior year, I felt a need to tell the story from the older brother’s perspective.

Part of this is because the first version of this story ended very differently. After the younger brother (Chad) offered to pay for the tires, the older brother (Daniel) said it was might be his best graduation present. They went down the stairs, with Chad calling out that he figured out Daniel’s graduation gift.

This was the story I submitted, though I knew it could still be stronger. I’m super grateful that editor Lauren Hildebrand enjoyed the story, but had the same sentiment. She reinforced my feelings that Daniel doesn’t have much of an arc, but also shared that she thought Chad would’ve liked to go on the trip. She made other solid comments about fleshing out the friends and how to treat dialogue, but her comments on the ending stuck with me the most.

I wrestled with it for a while. Maybe I was identifying way too closely with Daniel, but I didn’t think it would make sense for Chad to join the three boys on the trip they’d been planning for years. As I was thinking through this—trying to figure out how to get Daniel to offer but Chad not go—I eventually had another thought: Why not plan two road trips?

I’m a little embarrassed of how long it took me to come up with that, but I got there eventually. And I think the end result is appropriately sweet without negating the occasionally-tense brother-brother relationship. I made those changes as well as others, and that version is what you can read today.

One final note about the texting conversation. I’m not a big texter, but I’m pretty happy with how I feel I captured a text conversation between digital natives would go. When I submitted, I thought about keeping Alex’s and Ian’s texts lined up on the left, but lining up Daniel’s on the right to mirror how it would look on a phone screen, like so:

D: Bad news. Parents say all tires need to be replaced

A: Dang man. How much?

D: 600

A: Whoa

I: WAT

In the end, I stuck to the submission guidelines and kept everything aligned on the left. It may have worked with the initials like you see above. But with the nicknames (which … I did not know you could do in text conversations), I think they’re easier to track just left aligned. Maybe one day I’ll experiment with a text conversation that uses this format.

That concludes my behind the scenes look at “Road Tripping!” I hope you enjoyed both the story and learning how it came together. If you have any other questions about its creation, feel free to ask them below 🙂 Thanks for reading!

Behind the Scenes of “The Birthday Party”

In case you haven’t seen the latest news, I had another flash fiction piece published this month. It’s called “The Birthday Party,” is available in print/digital and on Kindle, and is my first published romance story. And this is a brief glimpse at how it came to be.

As with all of my stories submitted to Splickety, it started with their theme for the month. Specifically “The ‘Aww’ Factor” for their Spark (romance) imprint. This prompt asked writers to incorporate animals or kids into a romance story—and make it really sweet.

When I started brainstorming, I thought people would be more likely to use animals in their stories, so I decided to try to involve kids (if you check out the issue, you’ll see it turned out to be a 50/50 split). Trying to come up with scenarios that would put a kid and single adult in the same situation eluded me for a while. The college student attending a cousin’s birthday party angle eventually came to me, but my original story had a lot more setup explaining just how reluctantly she came to the party.

With the family relationship established between Julie and Emma, I still needed to come up with a reason for the love interest to attend. Obviously, he couldn’t also be family. Even if he was friend of the family, I thought it would be a stretch for a non-related college student to come to a eight-year-old’s birthday party. I wasn’t sure about going the teacher route because I thought a lot of submissions with kids would use that angle, so I think him technically just being an education major rather than a fully-fledged teacher helped him stand out.

As for the plot, I originally thought the story would be mostly conversation-driven. I expected to have them talk about college, flirt a little, and eventually decide to go out. But when I finally reached the point of them actually meeting, I looked at my word count and thought Um, I don’t have enough space for that.

So I introduced the water fight as a way for a lot to “happen” without having to describe it all. Even with this, it clocked in significantly over the 700 words I usually shoot for. I looked for places to cut, but figured that any cuts would just make the storytelling cut corners. The water fight went through a few iterations before landing on the idea that Julie really wasn’t that jazzed about it, but saw it as a chance to spend more time with Tim.

Writing a satisfying ending was rough, but I’m ultimately happy with how it turned out. Previous submissions to Spark had impressed on me the importance of feeling like the relationship would head somewhere after the story ended. But I also wasn’t sure if an hour hanging out at a kid’s birthday party would realistically feel like a good occasion to ask someone out. Both because of this uncertainty and word restraints, I decided to leave things with a brief, flirty exchange predicated on the time spent with the kids.

Of course, I couldn’t talk about behind the scenes of this story without mentioning editor Leslie McKee. Her comments helped me better understand what readers expect from flash fiction romance—for example, peppering hints of interest throughout the story, and not just toward the end. I was really thankful to have her direction in polishing the story up before publication.

And that’s how I wrote “The Birthday Party!” I hope you liked this glimpse behind the scenes of how it came together. Any other questions on this little romance story? Feel free to drop them in the comments.

Behind the Scenes of “Mr. Nilssen’s Kjempehytte”

Last week, The Norwegian American published my short story “Mr. Nilssen’s Kjempehytte.” If you haven’t read it yet, head on over to their website and take a look before reading on about how it came to be.

Unlike my previous stories, “Mr. Nilssen’s Kjempehytte” didn’t need to match a particular theme. That said, their submission guidelines do say they consider stories of any genre as long as they relate to Norway, or crime/mystery stories (even without Norwegian elements). I decided to hedge my bets with a mystery set in Norway.

For me, the biggest challenge of this was fitting a mystery into 1000 words. When I think of mysteries, I think of crime scenes, clues, witnesses, red herrings, and elaborate explanations revealed at the end. Which would not work as flash fiction. So I had to be very intentional about the story’s structure.

The final result essentially splices together key snippets of the “mystery”—surveying the evidence, collecting clues, piecing them together, etc. Because of this, the story is able to span a much longer timeframe than any of my previous stories. (Up until this one, my stories’ timelines have typically been a few minutes from beginning to end. “Mr. Nilssen’s Kjempehytte” spans a few hours.) Even re-reading it now, I’m pleased with how it turned out and kind of surprised at how it works as flash fiction even though it takes so long, timewise.

In terms of plot, I knew I wanted to include a troll even before finalizing the mystery itself. I’m a fantasy writer at heart, and Norwegian folklore is full of recognizable creatures and characters. Originally, I thought I might have the main character come into contact with the trolls (loosely foreshadowed by Berit’s remark about playing with their kids). Unfortunately, as the remaining word count grew slim, I realized I wouldn’t be able to do that scene justice. I’m not sure how many people will read the actual ending as an ambiguous one, but in my head, that troll is totally real.

The hard part was getting to it. While brainstorming ideas for evidence that could incite a mystery, I thought trolls might take issue with people mistreating land. Hence the destroyed backhoe. This ended up working both ways, as it also provided a reason for the absence of trash around the construction site. Just goes to show that when you don’t know how to move forward, sometimes you just need to look backward.

The names throughout the story are courtesy of a pre-reader with far more exposure to Norwegian culture than I have. Nilsson is a common Norwegian surname, and Berit is a common girl’s name. “Morfar,” if you caught it while reading, is the word for a maternal grandfather. On Google Maps, the region around Åmot looked like it had a good amount of forest and mountains, but I learned in the course of writing this that Norway is known considerably more for the latter than the former. The original title was “Trowhoyde” (a variation on the word “troll” and the Norwegian word for “hill,” but my editor suggested “Mr. Nilssen’s Kjempehytte” and I liked the sound of it. (As mentioned last week, “kjempehytte” loosely translates to cabin fight).

And that’s a little insight into how I wrote “Mr. Nilssen’s Kjempehytte!” I hope you enjoyed both the story and this little glimpse behind the scenes. Have any questions about it that I didn’t address here? Feel free to ask in the comments. Takk!

Behind the Scenes of “The Exomaton of Panner’s Bend”

My latest story, “The Exomaton of Panner’s Bend,” has been out for almost a week now (in print and on Kindle), so I thought this would be a good time to write a follow-up post about how it came together.

This was one of those rare prompts where I developed an idea pretty quickly. Especially because this was a contest issue, I knew I wanted to put a unique spin on the theme. The steampunk aesthetic jumped out to me, and I figured that would help the story stand out. After settling on the steampunk angle, a wild west setting seemed like a natural fit.

The theme also meant jumping into the action as quickly as possible. Readers don’t pick up a kaiju story looking for long soliloquies about where the monsters and robots came from—they want action! In my earlier beginnings, I tried introducing the exomaton through its inventor, or framing the story as a newspaper story. Ultimately, these (and a couple other starts) took too long to get to the actual fight between the exomaton and the monster. By shifting the perspective to one of the pilots, I felt more comfortable starting right as they’re all loading up to protect the town.

But even then, you’ll notice that describing the exomaton takes up a lengthy third paragraph. This description was one of the first things I wrote, and is largely similar to its original draft. Combined with the description of the ridgeshaker (which was also one of the first things I wrote), that’s about 120 words already accounted for.

After realizing this, I decided to not limit the story to <700 words. This is what I usually aim for since Splickety typically just acquires a couple stories longer than 700 words. But since this was a contest entry, I opted not to constrain myself if I thought it would make the story stronger.

The action of the story flowed naturally after getting to the battle. Rather than narrating the fight blow-by-blow, I focused on a few key moments to convey the idea of destruction without using too much word count. And even though the image of two giant beings fighting is really cool, I wanted the climax to be a more personal scene, which is why the main character is able to scare the ridgeshaker away with the steam. In another stroke of serendipity, the steampunk angle presented a great reason for the combatants to get stuck close together for a period of time.

In terms of names, “exomaton” is a riff on “automaton”—which has a loose steampunk connotation, but wouldn’t accurately describe something that needs to be piloted. “Exo” seemed like the perfect prefix to convey that people needed to be inside to run, but also provide a sense of scale. For a long time, the town had the placeholder name Golden Springs, but that felt way too tropey for a wild west town. After toying with the idea of the town being named after the panners who lived there rather than the gold they were finding, I settled on “Panner’s Bend.” Once both of these were settled, I put both in the title to clue readers into the fact that this wasn’t the usual kaiju setting.

And that’s how “The Exomaton of Panner’s Bend” came to be! I hope you enjoyed this little glimpse into how I wrote it—not to mention the story itself. If you have any other questions about the story (or the world it takes place in), feel free to ask in the comments!

Behind the Scenes of “Returning Home”

Last week, Splickety published my most recent flash fiction story “Returning Home” in their Heirs and Spares issue. If you haven’t read it yet, you can get a print or digital copy or check it out on Kindle. And as is my new tradition, this week I wanted to write a little behind-the-scenes post about writing it.

The moment I learned about this month’s theme (royal intrigue), I knew I wanted to put a unique spin on it. Also, based on feedback to my Splickety submission from a few months ago, I wanted to make sure I highlighted the main characters as teenagers (which seems to be a driving force of this year’s themes).

One thing that tripped me up early in the process was wondering whether I was supposed to invent royalty or take inspiration from historical figures. I thought it might be easy to see through something totally made up, so I opted to base it on real royalty. Since I expected many submissions would take place in white European settings (or at least be inspired by them), I wanted to set my story apart from the majority by staying away from that setting.

I’ve held a mild interest in Maya history/culture since visiting Guatemala with my family in high school. We lived with a host family on two separate occasions, and visited Tikal during both trips. And since I received good feedback on a story set in Maya culture last year, I thought it would be a good fit for this prompt. But that meant research.

In that vein, one of the first tidbits I learned while researching is the fact that “Maya”—rather than “Mayan”—is the right adjective to use. “Maya” is used when describing elements of their culture (Maya people, Maya history, etc.), while “Mayan” specifically refers to the language family. The more you know!

I started researching by trolling through Wikipedia for names of Maya rulers. (Don’t worry—real research does come into play later.) I figured I could get a feel for the royal dynamic in different Maya city-states and develop a short story about brothers conniving for the throne, or perhaps a forbidden love between members of rival kingdoms. This is where serendipity comes in.

While reading through articles, I learned about Dos Pilas and its relationship with Tikal. It was … complicated. Dos Pilas was a smaller settlement than Tikal, which was one of the powerhouses of its time. Its king claimed to be part of Tikal’s royal line, but its allegiance bounced between them and Calakmul (another major power) over the years.

If that doesn’t set the stage for royal drama, I don’t know what does.

The relevant information was scattered through a few different articles, but I pieced together the gist of Dos Pilas and Tikal’s relationship, the main players, and an inkling of what a short story could look like. At this point, I used Wikipedia’s references to track down Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens by Simon Martin. It helped flesh out a few more details, gave more credibility to certain name translations, and generally bolstered my confidence that this story could work.

Not that “Returning Home” is 100% historically accurate. I definitely took liberties with Bajlaj Chan’s and Nuun Ujol’s ages to better fit with the teenage element, and there aren’t many details about why the two were at odds. Nevertheless, the broad strokes about the two of them being brothers and the contentious relationship between the sites do have a basis in history.

Speaking of the kingdoms, you’ll notice that neither Tikal, Dos Pilas, nor Calakmul get name-dropped in “Returning Home.” That’s because those are our modern names for the settlements. In the Mayan language, Tikal was likely called “Mutal” … at least until Dos Pilas was founded and began using the same name/emblem glyph. At this point, Tikal started being known as “Yax Mutal”—the first Mutal. Dos Pilas is a Spanish name meaning “Two Wells,” though it was probably known as Mutal in its heyday. To avoid the confusion of two locations named “Yax Mutal” and “Mutal,” I used this Maya Hieroglyph Dictionary website to create a name based on the Mayan words for two wells (“Kach’en”). Similarly, Ox Te’Tuun was the Mayan name for Calakmul. It was unfortunate that all these place names took twice the word count, so I tried to limit using them as much as possible! (That’s also why Nuun Ujol only calls his younger brother “Bajlaj” instead of his full name, Bajlaj Chan.)

The only other name in the story is Coyopa, which is taken from the Maya god of thunder. It seemed like an appropriate name for a loyal war general. Yajaw, which is mentioned a couple of times in the story, is the Mayan word for “vassal lord,” which I thought gave the story the right amount of additional flavor.

Once I had the setting and premise of the story, it came together quickly. Like “The Journal of Wonders,” I wanted dialogue to drive most of the story. I thought focusing on a time before the kingdoms officially turned on one another would allow the brothers to have the type of conversation that could reliably drive a story. Nuun Ujol needed to already be convinced that Bajlaj Chan wanted to usurp him, so I wanted this scene to focus on the younger brother’s realization that he was no longer welcome in Yax Mutal. I was pleasantly surprised with the way it came together allowing me to contrast Bajlaj’s definitions of “home” at the beginning and end of the story, giving the title a nice double-meaning.

There you have it! You can see from this post that a big chunk of this story was research and prep work, and it came together … comparatively quickly after those. You probably know more about Maya history now than you ever expected to learn, but I hope you still enjoyed reading about the process and maybe even had a few questions answered. If you have any more questions, feel free to ask them below!

Writing Sword of the Stones

In case you missed the news last week, my most recent story “Sword of the Stones” was published in Havok’s latest issue. Get a print copy here or check it out on Kindle. Today, I wanted to share a little background info on its creation.

First off, since I knew I wanted to submit a story to Havok’s Extraordinary Exploits issue, I started with the prompt. I latched onto the examples of Indiana Jones and The Librarian. But, as is usually the case, my first few ideas looked very different from the final story.

One idea was to submit a story that read like an artifact retrieval form. It would include stats like where a certain relic was recovered and what properties it possessed, as well as a brief report of how it had been retrieved. Another idea began with a teenage boy cleaning out his grandmother’s attic, then finding a hatching dragon egg. But when I got into writing both of them, I realized that it was taking way too long to get to the action.

So I started brainstorming ideas of how to get straight to the action—as well as what kind of relic would lend itself to the pseudo-supernatural element of the prompt. I decided the best place to start would be literally seconds before retrieving the artifact, which would in turn activate some sort of (again, supernatural) defense system that would try to prevent the adventurer from escaping. (It should also be noted that, in my head, the main character is known only as “The Adventurer,” and doesn’t have a real name.)

That was when I had a mental image of an angel statue perched on top of a building, holding a sword while lighting flashed around. Those first few paragraphs went through quite a few revisions as I tried to balance scene-setting with action (and a little humor/sarcasm).

Funnily enough, the sword originally was the main relic—and would’ve been a lot more effective against the gargoyles. But the more I thought about it, “able to defeat animated stone” felt like a really random power, and wouldn’t be very useful in other scenarios. That got me thinking about what would be a cool supernatural ability bestowed by an artifact. Wings and flight seemed like a natural answer given the angel statue, and so the medallion worked its way into the story.

It wasn’t until after I started writing the animated gargoyles that I realized they are an unintentional callback to a short story I wrote in college. Something about those monstrous faces and the notion of living rock just strikes me as sinister. Technically, these ones are probably grotesques or chimeras because “gargoyle” specifically refers to carved spouts that carry water away from buildings, but I elected to keep the term “gargoyle” because it’s the one that most people are familiar with for what I was trying to get across.

Half by virtue of the sword losing its abilities, and half due to rapidly shrinking available wordcount, the fight on the roof ended up being shorter than I had first envisioned. I would’ve liked an epic battle on the monastery roof between Adventurer and gargoyle as lightning flashed and thunder roared, but by the time he picked himself up from the fall, I realized that the story needed to start wrapping up. I was happy to get that epic leap from the roof timed perfectly with a lightning strike. In the movie version, that scene is in slow-mo.

For the ending, it’s worth noting that my first draft was a couple sentences longer. I wanted to bring a sense of completion into the story, and I did that through a brief exchange of the duo talking about their next course of action (and the Adventurer thanking Veronica for saving his life). But when my brilliant wife/first editor read it for the first time, she pointed out that the story ended just fine with the “You got the short straw of artifacts this time” comment. Realizing that she was right (as usual), I removed the dialogue for an even shorter word count! Plus, I think the way it draws attention back to the relics gives the story a better sense of completion.

And those are the main points I remember from writing the story. I hope you enjoyed this look behind the scenes of “Sword of the Stones”! Just in case it didn’t come across, I had a blast writing the story—and I hope you enjoy(ed) reading it! Have any other questions about how it came together? Or about my writing process in general? Feel free to ask in the comments 🙂

Submissions Guidelines and Developing Stories

For the past week, I’ve been researching possible publications to submit a short story to. The most helpful website in finding publishers/markets that accept genre stories (science fiction/fantasy/etc.) has been Ralan.com, but just searching has also yielded a few possibilities.

This post, however, begs the question of whether I may be getting ahead of myself. You see … I haven’t actually written a new short story to submit to any of these publications. I’m mainly seeing what’s out there and reviewing their submission guidelines. And that’s making me (re)consider my current writing approach.

The reason? Nearly all the stories I’ve been writing recently have been based on provided themes. But as I research other publications, I’m finding a lot of options that give free rein (within the SFF space). This, in turn, means I’ll need to adjust how I end up writing this new story. Instead of getting ideas from (re)interpreting story prompts, the entire idea and its development are on me. Which is exciting! Yet also terrifying.

That’s not to say that these publications are entirely without guidelines. Most of them are extremely helpful in explaining what they’re looking for in stories (though the best way to figure that out is always to read past issues). And as you can imagine, writing a story based on what a publication likes to see increases its odds of being selected. Even if many of them don’t have specific themes, they do have certain elements that they’re looking for. If I write a new story with those notes in mind, it would likely perform better than a story written without such guidelines.

(It’s worth noting that this doesn’t refer to instructions about how to format or submit a story — those are set in stone to make things easy on editors. The “guidelines” I’m referring to here are broad notes about what kind of stories they do or don’t want to see.)

On top of all that, these publications have deadlines that are all over the place. Some are a week away. Others don’t close for a couple months. But if I start writing a story for a specific publication, you can bet I want to make sure I finish and submit it before the submissions period ends. Yet if I write a story without guidelines, there’s no telling when relevant submissions periods would be open to it.

It’s an almost paralyzing situation to be in — which is never good when your goal is to write as much as possible. I wonder if I’m putting too much pressure on myself to write something that gets selected. I need to remind that that’s a stretch goal, not a goal-goal.

At least I’m still writing blog posts, haha.