This is another subject too big to cover completely in a single blog post, but let’s look, at least, at a few basic ideas around the subject of research.

I think authors of fiction can be easily separated into two groups: one that loathes the very thought of doing anything resembling research on any subject ever, and the second that adores and even wallows in research, sometimes for years and years, until they’re the world’s foremost thought leader on that subject and are assured that every last detail in their novel is exactly perfect.

There is no in between, and both groups are doing it wrong.

Okay… you know what I mean.

Why would someone who is writing fiction—and especially fantasy—have to do any research at all?

Author Edward P. Jones asked a similar question in his essay “Finding the Known World” from the book The World Split Open: Great Authors on How and Why We Write:

After the novel (The Known World) was finished, my editor suggested that we put a few lines inside—maybe on the opposite of the title page—saying that none of the characters were real, that they were not based on any real people. And I told her, and I tell other people, that there shouldn’t be any need for that because on the front of the book it says, “a novel.”

Fair enough, but readers will come into your work with an infinite variety of experiences and expectations, including detailed knowledge or uneducated assumptions regarding some detail you thought inconsequential, but whose perceived “wrongness” will ruin their experience of the story. This is not something you can predict and chasing after that degree of perfection, especially since some number of those “expert” readers are actually wrong and you’re right, or you’re both wrong, or you’re both a little wrong and a little right… I’m already exhausted. But still, 2+2=4, and if your book says differently, you better have some fun, plausible fantasy built up around why that is.

I won’t belabor the whole plausibility vs. realism thing again—it’s pretty much all over everything I’ve ever written about writing fantasy, science fiction, and horror. If anything, a little research will help you avoid what I sometimes too safely refer to as “the Giggle Factor”—a fact that’s not that big a deal but is wrong in some way that makes everyone in the know giggle. Unless you want readers to giggle at a particular moment in your book, that can really mess you up.

For me, though, the most important reason to do basic research is that it can provide fresh ideas—things you never thought of that all of a sudden bring a scene to life, alters what you thought a character might say in a particular situation that propels that character to a whole new level, and so on. You never know what gems are waiting for you in the next Google result or the next book on the library shelf.

(I know you aren’t going to the library, but let an old man dream.)

When writing genre fiction in particular, some initial choices in terms of your sub-genre and general approach will start to reveal how much research you have in store for you or how little research you can get away with. If your fantasy world has magic you can explain away an awful lot with that one mechanic, for instance. Historical fantasy and alternate history or “hard” science fiction will require significant research. Contemporary science fiction (it’s 2019 and the aliens invade Earth), urban fantasy (it’s 2019 but the private detective is also a wizard), and almost all horror can require very little research, especially if you’re setting the story in your home town. Created or secondary world fantasy like the Lord of the Rings or the Forgotten Realms world, or far future or alternate reality science fiction like Dune and Star Wars will make their own demands in terms of research. Frank Herbert and J.R.R. Tolkien both put considerable research efforts into their worlds. George Lucas did little or no research at all, leaving it to the writers of the movie Solo to retrofit the whole parsec problem.

But in any case the question only you can answer for yourself and your work in progress is:

What do I need to know?

I brushed up against the concept of research when I talked about naming things. And I stand by my previous statement that naming things is 90% of worldbuilding. But if you are adopting a real world historical setting or using that as a basis for your otherwise created fantasy or science fiction world what do you need to know about, say, behavior and social expectations? Try asking someone already living in that occupation—or the closest thing the real world has to it.

[When doing research for fiction,] start by identifying subject matter experts and do your best to get an interview with them—it’s a fun way to research and get real info. (And make sure you introduce yourself honestly. It can take courage and self-confidence, but it makes sure everything is above board.)

…wrote author Chris Stollar.

What do you need to know regarding science and technology?

Jeff VanderMeer said in an interview with Writer’s Digest:

Well, I’m looking right now at my research, which is, literally, a desk piled with like 200 books on various things to do with nature, and climate change and whatnot. And one thing I realized before Hummingbird Salamander was just simply that I’d already been doing this since the ’80s in terms of talking about climate change in my fiction, more or less. But I’ve not been doing so directly. When I looked at all these books that I’d already read, I realized I had already done all the research.

VanderMeer further touches on the process of research and how it folds into the actual writing of the story:

But my approach to research is pretty much this: I think about a story for a long time because that gives me the leeway to do the research early on, and then let it become just kind of organic in the back of my head.

And he isn’t the only one who kept stacks of books and copious notes, who was essentially always “researching.” In her biography of pulp author Lester Dent, Bigger Than Life: The Creator of Doc SavageMarilyn Cannaday wrote:

Between, around, and through Dent’s travels and his many roles wove threads of an endless supply of stories. It was all material. He was a voracious reader. He searched out plots and characters and kept scrapbooks of clippings and notes—a storehouse of ideas for settings and scientific gadgets which Doc Savage and his troupe would use to extricate themselves from their many predicaments. Dent seemed to mix his reading and actual experiences with the very air he breathed, spinning them into episode after episode. He hardly knew where his life left off and writing began.

Reading Doc Savage, though, it’s clear that at some point—pretty early in the process—the research gave way to the imagination. This is fiction, after all, so there does need to be some end point to your research, some beginning point to your writing, and just like I’ve advised you to keep yourself open to knew, better ideas as you’re writing, the same goes for staying open to setting aside fact in favor of fiction, or as Richard Gilliam put it in his essay “Honest Lies and Darker Truths: History and Horror Fiction” in the book On Writing Horror:

There is, though, a danger that the fictional image may overwhelm the historical one. Certainly there are many examples of inaccurate propaganda being advanced to further unworthy political or social agendas. It’s a dangerous game to tamper with history for the sake of convenient storytelling. Still, every work of fiction in some way must deviate from objective history; it is the very nature of fiction to do so. Each writer must determine individually the standards and limits for abstractions from the objective world.

There’s an old saying: “Truth is stranger than fiction.” I don’t think that’s true. Our imaginations kick the shit out of reality on a day to day basis. Let facts help you, but don’t let facts suppress your imagination. We read fiction in celebration of the latter.


—Philip Athans


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If you haven’t been following along with this series of posts looking in detail at a single issue of Weird Tales, a classic pulp fiction magazine from 1925 that’s available for all of us to read online, go back to the beginning and start here. Or, of course, just jump in with…

…“Red and Black” by Irvin Mattick: Yong Lo Was a Reptile with an Artist’s Soul (or so says the contents page)!

…and so says the first sentence of the story. I think that’s worth noting right away. If the first sentence of your story can also be used as a compelling tagline, you’re doing something right. This also seems to lend credence to my own assertion that “the villain starts the story, the hero ends it” is all the story structure you really need to know. Based on the first sentence at least, it seems that author Irvin Mattick is beginning with his villain, the reptilian Yong Lo.

First, though, who is this Irvin Mattick fellow?

Well, the blog Tellers of Weird Tales comes to the rescue again with a little background information on author Irvin Mattick, who died the same month I turned five (September, 1969). It appears he only wrote five stories in his apparently part time career as an author, two of which were published in Weird Tales: this story and “The Headless Spokesman” (November, 1925). The earliest story is 1923’s Detective Tales feature “The Mystery at Eagle Lodge” and the last seems to be “The Gold of Feather Canyon,” which was published in the August, 1926 issue of The Popular Magazine. Speaking, as I have just recently here, of authors with “day jobs,” according to Tellers of Weird Tales Mr. Mattick supported his wife and two children “as a linoleum salesman, a clerk, and a writer for a telephone company.” Here’s hoping that our own efforts keep us publishing for more than the span of three years and only five short stories, but this is yet another example of just how open the old pulp magazines were. For every prolific author who went on to greater glory there were dozens if not hundreds of authors who might better be described as “hobbyists.” I’m loathe to use that word for anyone who’s been published at all, but there has to be some explanation for why Irvin Mattick started publishing at age 31 then seemed to give it up at age 34 and lived to the ripe old age of 77, almost 78. Of course, he might have written a few dozen or even a few hundred other stories under a variety of pseudonyms, which was a common practice in the pulp era. A mystery in itself, eh?

So, then, on with “Red and Black”!

The whole snake metaphor for a guy who squeezes money out of people via gambling is fun but a bit tortured. I have a feeling that sold this story in 1925, but wouldn’t in 2019. Still, it’s charming as can be, especially if you keep in mind that the content of Weird Tales was intended to be fun. This is fiction for the purpose of entertainment, and there was nothing wrong with that in 1925 and there’s still nothing wrong with that in 2019. Nor, I submit, will there be anything wrong with that in 2125 or 2219. Don’t be afraid to have fun telling a fun story. There should be a component of play to writing fiction—especially genre fiction. Look for a post devoted to that subject in the weeks ahead.

Getting into Yong Lo’s clandestine casino drips with 1920s speakeasy chic, while at the same time it drips with what can at least be described as “cultural insensitivity,” describing Asian people as “yellow,” and the stereotypical accent: “Man want see Yong Lo.” I’m getting the feeling this is going to be an issue with this story, so let’s pause to remind ourselves that the study of pulp fiction is not meant—at least by me—to be some effort to dial back the already slow moving clock of social progress but to understand the cultural norms of the time and culture in which these stories were written and look at the writing itself for things like pacing, what I previously mentioned about a sense of fun and play in the writing, and so on. This is not permission to call Asian people “yellow” any more than the rest of these stories, or my online Pulp Fiction Workshop, should be seen as encouraging the sort of institutionalized sexism and casual racism evident in a lot—but, significantly, not all—of the source material.

Anyway, the narrator has passed us through the front and into Yong Lo’s casino using another device you might not get past a contemporary editor: the vaguely second person use of “you” in “First you entered a low, wobbly store that helped to demoralize Hop Alley.”

I’d have liked to have been introduced to a POV character by now—and this is before the end of the first column of the first page of the story. Let’s see that POV character make his or her way through the secret door, not the vague “you.”

On that score at least, this whole opening “scene” is almost a master class in what not to do. Though I love the evocative descriptions, here’s a full-on info dump that describes the secret casino and its master in great detail, but with no action. Nothing is happening to anyone or because of anyone—it’s just scene setting.

Don’t do this!

If you want to describe how fancy the roulette wheel is because you want to convey that this isn’t some seedy barroom but a high class joint, then have your POV character place a bigger bet than she can afford then watch in desperate anticipation as the wheel decides her fate. In that way, the wheel matters to someone, not as something. Stories are about characters—always—and about things only in how they interact with the characters!

And this keeps happening, with an arm’s length one-paragraph dissertation in the apparent voice of an unknown, “omniscient” narrator on the discovery by Butch Killian that Yong Lo is cheating. This needs to be an actual scene—conveyed through either Yong Lo’s or Butch’s tight POV, so we experience him experiencing this revelation—feeling his way through it, rather than the storytelling-via-bullet-points—this happened then this happened then this happened, etc.—that we see here.

For what it’s worth, right now, I really didn’t want to just complain about this story. But come on, Irvin Mattick, get it together, man!

At least, as we get into page 69, Yong Lo begins to reveal himself as the POV character, fading in in place of the narrator that’s been trash talking him so far. Hope springs eternal!

Kind of a fun bit with the letter revealing Lee Gow’s conspiracy with Butch Killian, even if it comes a little easy…

Hmmm… Looks like everyone is a bad guy in this story, and I respect that. Have you read R.A. Salvatore’s War of the Spider Queen yet?

That said, it’s Lee Gow who has committed the one most unpardonable crime of all:

“Na—na—na—they find me. I kill white girl—I hide in cellar hole.”

What can I say? It took another seventy years for someone to get away with that.

Oh, and then we get to “the C word.” I actually wasn’t expecting that. Still, it’s in character for Butch Killian to say that, but would he say it to another Chinese person? Maybe, in 1925. Think about this sort of thing—language you hopefully don’t use yourself—as another example of letting your villains be villainous, like we talked about with Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones. That word doesn’t make Irvin Mattick an asshole for writing it, it makes Butch Killian an asshole for saying it—and the story requires Butch to be an asshole, or as Yong Lo himself says: “Butch Killian big boob.”

The torture of Butch is pretty gross, but for our purposes look at how sloppy the POV is. With no thought whatsoever we get a glimpse of what Butch looks like, which only Yong Lo can see: “Butch’s neck turned black.” Then a description of sensations only Butch’s POV could provide: “Rushing noises swooped down upon him.” And both in a single paragraph. This passed muster in 1925 but even in short stories where we can give ourselves and each other more leeway on POV, getting into and staying in the habit of one scene, one POV will be worth the effort.

This scene gets pretty gross—an object lesson for those of you who think that gory fiction or media in general is some kind of new invention: “…his thighs seemed to take what belonged in his torso.”


Whoa—spoiler alert: everybody dies!

And that’s okay… everybody in this story deserved to.

I have my legitimate gripes with the writing but the story came together in the end with some wildly imaginative, almost crazy-gory aplomb. This was a rough one, but I think we learned from it. If anything we’re getting a great look at the up and down, good and bad nature of the stories packed into these old magazines.

Can’t wait to see what weirdness Weird Tales gives us next.


—Philip Athans





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Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family,” first published in The Wolverine in 1921, is a story often held up as an example of Lovecraft’s overt racism since it plays on the “terror” of racial or genetic impurity—a horror story for the era of eugenics. But in this passage we see the roots of a building sense of the human species as not just inherently villainous to each other, but a danger to the world itself—our curiosity threatens all, starting with ourselves.

Life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know of it peer daemoniacal hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous. Science, already oppressive with its shocking revelations, will perhaps be the ultimate exterminator of our human species—if separate species we be—for its reserve of unguessed horrors could never be borne by mortal brains if loosed upon the world. If we knew what we are, we should do as Sir Arthur Jermyn did; and Arthur Jermyn soaked himself in oil and set fire to his clothing one night.

If I may, for a moment, conflate the words “science” and “technology,” the Industrial Revolution that Lovecraft was experiencing as he wrote this story has led us to the same conclusion reached by Arthur Jermyn, especially when we’re confronted by one study after another that lend inescapable truth to his assertion, like the study described in the USA Today article from November 19, “Climate change to trigger widespread hazards to Earth and humanity—many at the same time“:

“Greenhouse gas emissions pose a broad threat to humanity by simultaneously intensifying many hazards that have proven harmful in the past,” (Camilo) Mora said. “Further, we predict that by 2100 the number of hazards occurring concurrently will increase, making it even more difficult for people to cope.”

For example, in New York in 2100, people will endure four separate climate hazards, including drought, sea-level rise, extreme rainfall and high heat. By that time, Los Angeles will deal with three.

Although the scientists discovered few positive or neutral effects, the overwhelming majority of climate impacts are detrimental to humans.

“If we only consider the most direct threats from climate change, for example heat waves or severe storms, we inevitably will be blindsided by even larger threats that, in combination, can have even broader societal impacts,” study co-author Jonathan Patz of the University of Wisconsin said.

I’m not prepared to light myself on fire yet, but even as a generally pro-science, pro-technology person, I can’t pretend that the Industrial Age hasn’t come at a severe long term cost. I don’t think H.P. Lovecraft had any sense that carbon emissions in 1921 would pave the way to disastrous climate change only detectable half a century in his future and disastrous half a century in ours, but maybe, like Mary Shelly before him, we could have listened to people who were at least asking that we be a bit more cautious in the stuff we invent and even more cautious of the machines we put into massive, wide-scale use having no idea of their long term impacts.

In his most famous story, “The Call of Cthulhu,” Lovecraft wrote:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We lie on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

In this case, I tend to disagree with Lovecraft. I think the smarter we are the better. But a general fear of science has been around for, really, all of human history. Religions are founded on the concept of “ignorance is bliss”—that it’s better to repeat feel good stories than to know just how little the universe cares about us, not to mention all the ways in which it’s lined up to destroy us—and in Lovecraft’s lifetime only a few of the many extinction level events lurking in the black seas of infinity were known.

This definitely explains why America, while barreling to the Singularity, is awash in nonsense from both the left and the right, from the religious and the pseudo-scientific, leading National Geographic to ask: “Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?”

We live in an age when all manner of scientific knowledge—from the safety of fluoride and vaccines to the reality of climate change—faces organized and often furious opposition. Empowered by their own sources of information and their own interpretations of research, doubters have declared war on the consensus of experts. There are so many of these controversies these days, you’d think a diabolical agency had put something in the water to make people argumentative. And there’s so much talk about the trend these days—in books, articles, and academic conferences—that science doubt itself has become a pop-culture meme.

This leaves us with anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, flat-Earthers, and anti-GMOers diving headfirst into their own new Dark Ages, all while watching the current measles outbreak run through Seattle, the climate actually changing now fast enough to see and feel, driving to their flat-Earther convention using the GPS on their phones that only works because of satellites in orbit around the spherical planet, all while happily munching organic foods and either pretending or somehow actually not knowing that being anti-GMO means they also have to be pro-starvation, especially for developing nations facing a rapidly changing climate.

Science has opened up such terrifying vistas of reality that it now feels like mythology. The universe around us was always assumed to be pretty weird but every day it’s getting weirder and weirder, and that weirdness is being revealed to us faster and faster. It’s now gotten so difficult to keep up that whole groups of otherwise smart people are falling off the speeding locomotive of scientific and technological progress somewhere along the way.

It can be drawn out of a careful reading of his fiction, but in a letter to Farnsworth Wright dated July 5, 1927 (Selected Letters II, 1925-1929, quoted in In the Dust of This Planet by Eugene Thacker) Lovecraft just came right out and admitted that…

Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form—and the local human passions and conditions and standards—are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all… but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown—the shadow-haunted Outside—we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold.

I understand if not everyone is comfortable with the idea that there’s nothing terribly special about humans, or worse, that a lot of what we pat ourselves on the back for (technology) is actually killing us and taking innocent fellow creatures down with us while we’re now smart enough (science) to know that we’re stuck to a whirling ball of rock adrift in the black seas of infinity and the killer asteroid, coronal mass ejection, or gamma ray burst that murders us all without malice of forethought is literally an ever-present danger.

There’s scary shit out there, and the smarter you are the more of it you’re confronted with, and the more you’re confronted with it the closer you get to the point where you just fucking crack.

At least, according to H.P. Lovecraft.

But how about this idea: In the same way that American conservatives were wrong, in the 1960s, when they said to the hippies: “America, love it or leave it,” when our Founding Fathers set up the Constitution under the general heading: “America, love it or fix it,” we can either freak out at the icky feeling that food made in a laboratory might conjure, flail about for someone to blame for random occurrences like autism, or keep burning fossil fuels because it’s cheaper and easier and anyway the oil companies won’t let us stop, than it is to think that maybe the same spectacular creativity that came up with the internal combustion engine and the atomic bomb could come up with the means to fix the mistakes—some of them innocent enough—of previous generations.


—Philip Athans


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I read a report on Publishing Perspectives regarding a report from the Author’s Guild, that the average income authors derived exclusively from writing has fallen by 42% since 2009. That’s a huge number, actually, and really terrifying—at least on the face of it. But as I continued reading the report on the report, that number came more and more under suspicion. From Publishing Perspectives:

There is what appears to be a brighter spot. Authors identifying themselves as full-time, when reporting “all writing-related activities,” showed a median income that was up 3 percent over 2013, coming in at $20,300. The guild points out, however, that this is still substantially lower than the $25,000 median income that class of writer reported in 2009.

This, to me at least, begs the question: Who is an “author,” anyway, and how has that definition changed since 2009? Surely there are more indie and self-published authors now than there were then—and only a precious few of them are managing a full time living from writing. I still know, personally, very few authors (of fiction, at least) who do it full time, or derive the majority of their income from their writing—and I know a lot of authors, believe me.

And let’s be honest, if the average full time author is making $20,300 a year…? Well, that’s not going to cover my $32,000 in mortgage payments every year, so I’m not sure where these people are living, but it ain’t anywhere near Seattle, let me tell you.

So then if the minority of professional full time authors have gotten a 3% raise since the end of the worst of the post-Bush Depression, an easy explanation for the overall drop of 42% is that there are a lot more people making very little money each.

And though of course I would love it if everyone out there with a story to tell and the will and passion and education to do it well, and the professionalism, drive, and ambition to do it for a living are at least able to make a decent living from it, the reality is that most likely none of us are going to get rich (whatever that means), or even achieve that coveted status of “full time author” anytime soon.

Is that some sign of an impending Bookpocalypse?

I’ve been warned of that before.

Or is this, in fact, the lot of the midlist, first time, struggling, and aspiring author (I’d bet that accounts for more than 90% of authors in any case) since time immemorial?

In her LitHub article “William Faulkner Was Really Bad at Being a Postman,” Emily Temple wrote:

Faulkner would open and close the office whenever he felt like it, he would read other people’s magazines, he would throw out any mail he thought unimportant, he would play cards with his friends or write in the back while patrons waited out front.

Faulkner, asked to defend his actions, replied, by letter:

[October, 1924]

As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.

This, sir, is my resignation.

You go, William.

The history of the written word is full of stories like this, authors frustrated by terrible day jobs, suffering under the yoke of the Man while desperately trying to pursue their literary careers. But now that we know how hard it is, how uncommon it is, and how long it takes to make a living from writing, what are we left with? Are we all stuck serving “at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp”? Or is there some reasonable alternative?

In the book Tribe of Mentors by Timothy Ferris, author Soman Chainani wrote:

Too often. aspiring artists put pressure on themselves to make their creative work their only source of income. In my experience, it’s a road to misery. If art is your sole source of income, then there’s unrelenting pressure on that art, and mercenary pressure is the enemy of the creative elves inside you trying to get the work done. Having another stream of income drains the pressure on your creative engine. If nothing comes of your art, you still have an ironclad plan to support yourself. As a result, your creative soul feels lighter and free to do its best work.

I love this—and not just as some kind of excuse for not living my best life, but as some confirmation that I actually am living my best life. The trick isn’t trying desperately to claw your way out of a horrible day job on the strength of your writing—or art in general—but to claw your way out of a horrible day job and into a better day job, while still pursuing your writing.

That’s what I’ve done all my adult life. I’ve had jobs I loved—at least when I was in my twenties—like record store manager, until I found the one job that perfectly blended with my writing ambitions: editor.

And guess what, “editor” is still my “day job.” And though my own writing took a bit of a back seat while I established Athans & Associates Creative Consulting in the couple years since leaving Wizards of the Coast, I’ve found my way to exactly what Soman Chainani was describing. I don’t write for money, under strict deadline, anymore. No more Baldur’s Gate’s for me. I love writing again, because I love my day job.

Can’t quit your day job, and that makes you miserable? Instead of desperately clawing after impossibilities like surfing trends in YA publishing, or trying to hack the Amazon Kindle algorithms… spend a few months getting a better day job while, of course, writing!


—Philip Athans


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I don’t want Fantasy Author’s Handbook to become a blog only about what we might learn about the art and craft of genre fiction by reading one 1925 issue of Weird Tales, but let’s just finish up on the novelette we started on December 18

The story thus far: Martin has travelled to the Peruvian Andes in search of treasure and after being abandoned by his native guide and drunkenly wandering away from his travelling companion and their pack mule, he fell into a ravine and was rescued by indigenous people who have taken him in and cared for him, so he can lust after the gold and emeralds they’re wearing and plot some means to seduce the treasure away from the young woman who has been nursing him back to health. “White Man’s Madness,” indeed.

We left off at the end of Chapter 2, so boldly pressing on into the treasures hidden within Chapter 3 we find Martin’s thoughts filled with his own pain, his senses gradually coming back. Can we hope he’ll snap out of his Colonialist greed frenzy? He definitely seems to be “catching feelings,” as the youth of today might say, for the native girl, and based on…

Under his ardent glances, her eyes drooped and a dusky rose crept into her cheeks.

…the feeling is mutual.

This is good place to pause, already, to remember that even if a story isn’t, or isn’t meant to be, a romance, per se, that romantic elements aren’t just occasionally found in, but are almost always integral to stories in any other genre. Finding the line between a fantasy story and a fantasy-romance can be, frankly, impossible. Though, in retrospect, I gave the subject short shrift in The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, I stand behind this, at least:

Both fantasy and science fiction require fully realized characters, and that usually includes some form of romance. People have done extraordinary things in the name of love [or lust], both positive and negative. When you’re developing your characters, it’s important to know whom they go home to every night—or whom they hope someday to go home to, or whom they used to go home to but can’t anymore.

And as I said, there’s more to it than that. And it isn’t all about “the male gaze,” nor is it some kind of all-or-nothing acceptance or rejection of explicit sexual content. People like, love, and lust after each other, and your characters will not be people unless and until they do that, too.

Things advance as Martin continues to recover, and only when he loudly professes his love for her do we learn the young woman’s name is Taia. That’s an oversight you’ll want to avoid. People tell each other their names. I’m notoriously bad at connecting names and faces, myself, sometimes embarrassingly so, but when you’ve been living with someone who’s been taking care of you for a long time… He knew her name before this, obviously, and since Martin is our POV character, we should have, too!

Let’s just sit back from a remove of ninety-four years and soak up the gender and race assumptions this scene of Martin and Taia proclaiming their love for each other brings up—on both sides.

But then there’s this reveal that there’s a greater layer to the whole thing than just that he’s a white man and she’s… not. Taia is the One Set Aside, which, by the way, is a title that I really like.

But can I just say, as both a reader and an editor, that any paragraph that begins:

“Listen,”  she continued, seeing his perplexity. “I will tell you how it is.”

…gives me pause. Or maybe more accurately: stress-related sweats? Petite mal seizures? If you’re still struggling with the distinction between show vs. tell, when a character actually says out loud “I will tell you how it is,” that’s telling.


Okay, Taia, the One Set Aside, let’s hear it…

And so follows a little info dump that tells the sad history of Taia’s people, their own internal struggles, and their misuse at the hands of the white man—told, can I say, with some sensitivity. Here, in 1925, the myth of the heroic European explorer bringing the light of Christendom to the savage frontiers of the New World is getting at least this small voice in opposition. Maybe some real understanding of the history of the Americas isn’t such a new phenomenon as some of us would think—or most pulp cover art would have us believe. Well played, Ms. Chaney.

But then quickly back to traditional gender roles in which Taia sees no alternative but to give up her important role as the One Set Aside in order to be with Martin, those two things (like the careers of most women in the 1920s) being mutually exclusive, by unwritten caveat.

The lesson from all this, so I can stop harping on every example of how we’re all so much more enlightened here in the 21st century, is this:

Try as you might, you (and me, and all of us) will end up having written a story that, ninety-four years from now, will in some way or another come across as dated, quaint, even racist, sexist, or disturbingly retrograde. This story, and the rest of the stories we’re reading in this old issue of Weird Tales, aren’t ever going to be shining examples of how the art of fiction can or has been perfected. They are, like everything we’re going to write, ourselves, in 2019, a product of our time and culture—whatever that is. So though I’m sure I’ve come across as poking some fun at Lenore E. Chaney’s “quaint” assumptions regarding race, gender, language, and so on… don’t worry, I’ll get mine soon enough.

We all will.

Back to the story then, and a recurrence of Martin’s “White Man’s Madness” when Taia’s story “brought not a vision of a spiritual teacher, but dreams of the capitals of Europe, whose innermost portals would be opened wide for him if only he could lay hands upon this treasure.”

Oh, Martin, we wanted so much more from you.

Remember when we talked about theme? I think this is to be a story about greed, and how bad it is. I bet you’ve picked up on that, too.

In discussions and classes on the subject of worldbuilding, I’ve often said that your story will tell you what part of the world it’s necessary for you to build, citing the possible necessity for a funeral as one such occasion. Here, Lenore E. Chaney gives us her fictional tribe’s wedding ceremony:

Without another word the priest turned and left them, motioning them to await his return. Presently he came back again, followed by the two brothers of Taia and several of the Indians of the village. Joining the hands of the two, he went rapidly through a sort of ritual, of which Martin could understand only a word here and there. Then he took from around Taia’s slim throat a golden chain, from which hung the familiar golden disk, and this he hung around Martin’s own neck, and lifting Martin’s right hand he laid it upon the girl’s bowed head.

“You are now one,” he said. “Walk together in the law. Take heed lest sorrow come through fault of your own, since sorrow earned is sorrow doubled.”

Another example of what not to do, at least if you can at all help it: “he went rapidly through a sort of ritual.” This is telling again. We came to this story for the exotic and, literally, weird, didn’t we? Show us the exotic wedding ceremony! Now, that doesn’t mean it has to overwhelm the story with pages and pages of ritual minutiae, but even a few sentences describing what the priest was talking about? Show us his face and demeanor, not to mention Martin’s and Taia’s. There are a few details before and after, but this could have been brought to life more fully.

Chapter 3 ends on the dramatic moment at the end of the wedding where it’s clear that Taia is not as happy as one might hope a blushing bride would be immediately following her wedding. The transition immediately to: “The days that followed were the happiest days that Martin had ever known,” is a chapter transition counterpoint that, to my mind, really worked, even if the paragraph goes on to show that Taia has shed at least a good portion of her gloominess following the wedding.

Now Martin goes back to work on her—trying to discover the location of the hidden treasure—and the blush is off the rose in three weeks. Martin goes into full creepy manipulator mode, solidifying his role as the story’s villain, which is well conveyed by the things he does and says, even if Ms. Chaney lays some of Taia’s innocence on a bit thick. But then love is blind, even in the uncharted reaches of the Peruvian Andes.

What follows in this longer conversation is a bit condensed, from a storytelling point of view, but is interesting in that the method Martin thought to use to get closer to Taia is exactly what’s keeping him out of the temple. As soon as he married her, she became unable to fork over the treasure, even if she wanted to—and she clearly doesn’t want to. Keep this in mind as an example of how story often comes from a character screwing up, making a bad decision, failing at a goal, etc.—but then climbing back up on the horse and trying again from a different angle.

You can refer back to what I said about a character telling another character the whole story for the big part of Chapter 4 in which Taia unloads the rest of the story behind the hidden treasure. Seems strange to me, at this point, that Martin hadn’t already asked about this or Taia hadn’t thought to tell him all this. It isn’t just about avoiding info dumps, but being careful to give characters (and through them, your readers) information as it’s needed to push your story forward, but also when it’s logical that a character would ask, or seek out that information, or know better than to proceed without it, and so on. Suspense comes from an imbalance of information—you’ve let your readers in on some important bit of information the current POV character doesn’t know—but if there’s one character, like Taia, who’s been generally forthcoming, and another, like Martin, who’s extremely interested in any and every detail of a subject he knows she knows all about, and somehow months go by before anyone thinks to say, “Okay, here’s the reason for the thing…” Well, that just feels… forced? Illogical? Implausible? A storytelling device instead of a thing that a person might do?

All of the above.

Anyway, armed with this new information, Martin strikes out on his own to try to figure out the location of the hidden treasure temple—and this is good. Characters, including villains, should be actively working toward the furtherance of their goals!

This is interesting—fascinating, really: the way Lenore E. Chaney wrote her way around this act of child murder:

The boy quivered and shrank away from the menace in Martin’s voice, but he did not speak.

Then the long pent-up fury burst forth, for the man had gone mad through the passion of thwarted desire. For all the centuries of civilization have but served to lay a thin veneer over the cruelty of the savage, and, given sufficient prodding, the beast within breaks forth now and then, either in organized fiendishness, as in the public Inquisition, or in private deviltry that finds no historian ready to record it.

An hour later, spent and a little sick, Martin staggered down the trail alone, and he did not yet know the secret of the path. As he went along he thought of what Taia had said of the madness in the white man’s brain. It had seized upon him, Martin, even as it had seized upon Pizarro’s men, five hundred years before.

When you’re choosing your level of violence or gore, or the degree of explicit sex you include—or choose not to include—in your story, your comfort zone wins over any feeling you might have for what “they” expect, either way. And by “they” I mean whoever you might be tempted to turn creative control over your work to—before “they” have even read it: agents, editors, readers, critics… whoever. Describe this murder? Too much for Ms. Chaney. And that’s perfectly okay—and the fade out might just be more effective, more impactful than any blood and guts she might have cringed her way through.

Heck of a way to end Chapter 4.

Good to see Martin suffering through the guilt of his crime—the recognition of his obsession, now turned murderous. Is there a moment in your work-in-progress where the villain has this moment of doubt and pain? It’s not a requirement but it can be effective, as it is here. Even if he gets over it awful quick!

The scene in which Martin finally discovers the temple is wonderfully described, but can I sigh in disappointment at the ending, in which Martin’s greed is his final undoing? Because… is it? I guess so—if he hadn’t attempted to raid the temple in the first place he wouldn’t have fallen for what’s clearly a booby trap. And this seems to say that they—at least the priest—knew all along what Martin was up to, what he was working toward, and let him go ahead and hang himself… except that he murdered the boy in the meantime. That was quite a risk, leaving this foaming at the mouth victim of “White Man’s Madness” to roam freely amongst the tribe.

Anyway, justice was served, and we’ve all been warned: Stop raiding indigenous peoples of their resources!


—Philip Athans






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On December 18 we started in on…

…as part of my ongoing series of posts looking back at a classic issue of Weird Tales, which is available for all of us—and that means you!—to read online. This week, onward from the beginning of Chapter 2…

He awoke to find himself lying on a rude bunk against the side of a stone hut, and through the open door the sun streamed in, warm and cheering.

When was the last time you heard something—not someone, but an object—described as “rude”? And there’s a “rude table” a bit later on, a “rude surgery”… See how language and usage shift over time? Just thought that was interesting.

But of more interest is the transition this chapter break provides. Our hero falls into a chasm, struggles to remain conscious, is vaguely aware of people helping him, then he falls unconscious—chapter break—and he wakes up some time later in a completely different location. This clearly wasn’t a chapter break placed in at some pre-determined word count mark, but at the dramatically appropriate moment, a point at which there is a pause in the POV character’s experience of the story. That’s a great lesson in terms of where to place those chapter breaks, based on the story, not the word count.

I will hold to my advice regarding words like “instantly,” and say that that word could have been and should have been cut from this opening paragraph, especially since it then opens the very next paragraph.

But more than that, are we detecting some “favorite words” from Ms. Chaney? Rude, instantly…? We all have them (mine tend to be just and actually) and only an editor can spot them for us. Let’s keep an eye out for those, shall we?

A fun twist with the gold cup—this pulls Martin from waking up injured and confused, and back to his own story: his quest for the riches of the Peruvian Andes.

Instantly from the door of the hut came the word instantly again. Now you’re not going to be able to not see it. You’re welcome.

Am I just the suspicious sort or is this story starting to make you think of Stephen King’s Misery as well?

It’s interesting to note, maybe as part of a bigger discussion of sexism in early 20th century pulp fiction, that a woman wrote the description:

From time to time he stole glances at the slender figure of the girl beside him. She had the lissome grace of the wild creatures of the woods; she sat limply as if every muscle were utterly relaxed; and yet he knew that at the slightest sound she would be instantly alert and poised for action. She was dressed in a soft, clinging garment of cream-colored woolen material…

And then Martin notices all the gold she’s wearing, shifting her, at least a little, from an object of attraction to another reminder of his greed-based mission. In any case, Lenore E. Chaney seems well acquainted with the concept of the “male gaze” as well as certain package of pulp fiction expectations about clinging garments and overall firmness, but at the same time she conveys that this is not—or at the very least may not be—a woman you want to mess with. (And I added the emphasis to point out another instance of instantly.)

Then the description starts to take on a creepy vibe when Martin tries to place her racial origins…

But what had given this daughter of the Peruvian wilds the form and features of the best product of the Aryan race?

This gave me pause. Now my Nazi radar is activated, especially since this story was published about five years or so after the Nazi Party was established in Germany. Please don’t turn out to be a Nazi, Lenore E. Chaney… please don’t turn out to be a Nazi!

Back to the story, then, and the priest comes in and apologizes for their “rude surgery.” As an editor I have to admit I get a certain satisfaction pointing out “favorite words” like this and watching authors freak out at how often they see them once they’ve been pointed out a couple times. I’m actually just here to help.

Anyone else getting a little drowsy at Martin’s recap of the story thus far to the priest? If he isn’t going to make something up, and more or less tells it like it was, we could have saved some words here with something like…

Martin told the old priest how he’d ended up in the ravine, but the moment the last words were out of his mouth Martin realized that they had been a mistake.

Note that most of that is the existing text of the story from the top of the second column of page 55. But then Lenore E. Chaney, like the rest of the Weird Tales authors, was being paid by the word, so… Still, the budget conscious editor in me would want to cut that recap for a more selfish reason.

Speaking of words we don’t use the same way anymore…

“Wonderful! Wonderful!” Martin ejaculated, and then bit his lips in annoyance.



What’s interesting to me in this part of the story is that Martin feels like the villain to me, not the hero of the piece. Here he’s enjoying the hospitality and care of indigenous people and all he can think of is all the gold and emeralds they have—he keeps going back to greed, a lust for treasure, and seems to put very little if any thought into, well… anything else. How about a little gratitude? His curiosity about who these people are seems entirely limited to their stuff and his desire to get some of it. This takes an even creepier turn right at the end of Chapter 2 when it’s made clear that Martin is thinking about manipulating the “Indian maiden” who saved his life in an effort to get his hands on the priest’s emerald, and other treasures.

I’m now much more curious to see how this turns out since it could be that the “White Man’s Madness” the title refers to is just that: greed. Now as I’m reading, I’m waiting for one turn or another, either the completion of the turn from hero to villain for Martin or a turn from greedy villain to hero for a reformed Martin. And this is great news—I’m into the story now! I’m thinking about it, building up questions and expectations about it, and that’s a credit to Lenore E. Chaney’s storytelling and characterization.

The only thing that worries me is that Martin will stay greedy and “win” by overcoming the native people and “victoriously” making off with their treasures. But I’m willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt and keep reading!

A dramatic pause point, then, and we’ll move on to Chapter 3 next time!


—Philip Athans




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This week, how about a preview of the revised fourth session of my online course Worldbuilding in Fantasy and Science Fiction Writing, which starts up again day after tomorrow…


I might go so far as to say that fantasy and science fiction worldbuilding is ninety percent naming things. We tell stories about people—and even if you reimagine “people” as elves or replicants, people are people. Our emotional lives, our fears and desires and expectations track from story to story. That’s what makes a character in a fantasy novel just as believable, just as “real” as a character in a contemporary romance. But where they live, the world we’re building around them, is different: different cities, different nations, different gods… different geography and different names for the things they find there.

This is where the thinking you’ve done in the broader categories of magic and technology, government and religion, and culture all come together under what may be the broadest category of all. In his book Maphead, Ken Jennings wrote:

It’s misleading to think of geography as a single discipline at all. Instead it’s the ultimate interdisciplinary study, because it’s made up of every other discipline viewed spatially, through the lens of place. Language, history, biology, public health, paleontology, urban planning—there are geographers studying all these subjects and aspects of geography taught in all of them. In one sense, geography’s ubiquity is an argument for its importance.

So yes, by all means, draw maps, but there’s lots more to it than that!


If we begin with the basic concept that no one literally speaks English in either Westeros or in the galaxy far, far away in which Star Warstakes place then we have to assume that the Georges R.R. Martin and Lucas have done us the service of translating (at least most of) what their characters say into English (even if that come via subtitles) so we don’t have to first learn a new, invented language in order to enjoy those stories. That leaves us with this question: To translate or not to translate?

I say: Again, at least ninety percent of the time, translate.

I tackled this issue in The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction:

In the old Battlestar Galactica television series from the late seventies, our heroes are humans who have been separated from the rest of humanity and are on a pilgrimage to find what has for them become the legendary Earth. It’s naturally assumed that though the actors are speaking English, their characters are speaking their own native language, and they’ve got their own system of weights and measures. To emphasize this point, the characters say “Wait a centon” instead of “Wait a minute.”

I’m sure there are hardcore fans out there who will find my opinion sacrilegious, but I believe that was a terrible decision. If a centon and a minute are essentially the same, why not translate centon intominute and get on with telling the story? No episode was improved by the fact that they worked in centons instead of minutes.

And I stand by that opinion. Translate anything, not just units of weight and measure, into English (or the metric system, if you like, in science fiction) in the same way you’re translating the words for floor, table, love, etc.

But then… not always!

I worked for almost fifteen years as an editor for TSR and Wizards of the Coast, and worked primarily on the Forgotten Realms novel line. I’ve often pointed out that the dark elves of the Forgotten Realms world wear a cloak called a piwafwi, and you’ll see it called that throughout dozens and dozens of books. So why not translate “piwafwi” into “cloak”? Well, it turns out that a piwafwiis a very specific kind of cloak, made only by the dark elves. It has some magical properties that help the wearer go unseen. It looks like a cloak, and in every other way functions like a cloak, but this very specific thing does not exist in the real world. There is no English word for it. It is a piwafwi. So, adopt this rule:

If there is a clear real-world analog, translate it. If not, name it.

But then how then do we come up with words like piwafwi?

And no, you do not need to literally create a new language before you can write a science fiction or fantasy novel, even if there might have been an author (like Tolkien) who did so, or someone who came along later to create Klingon deep into the life of the Star Trek franchise. If you have a background in that sort of thing and approach it more as a separate hobby than as a necessary component to your writing, have fun. But no matter how you slice it, time spent over-worldbuilding is time spent away from writing!

Free, then, of the requirement to create our own versions of Elvish, how best to create unique individual words for when they are necessary?

I really don’t want to just say: String together letters that you think sound cool. But then, I’ve done exactly that to come up with names for characters, planets, cities… all sorts of things. In fact, I would bet that at least half the names of your favorite fantasy characters, places, and so on, were generated in just that way.

I worked with an author—and you would recognize her name—who told me that she used placeholders throughout her text almost until the last second, and when I asked her how to pronounce one character’s name she said, “I don’t know, it’s F3 on my keyboard.” Now, I am not recommending that. I tend to think you should be able to call your characters by name as soon in your writing process as possible to get to know them as well as you can in order to bring them properly to life. But I know just as many authors who fall into work-stopping obsession over finding exactly the right name, suffering over every syllable until they just freeze up. And you don’t want to freeze up!

We’ll look at more specific advice in the categories below, but here’s a little more general practical advice on the subjects of language:


  1. Avoid creating new rules for usage when you don’t need to. From Appendix A of my book Writing Monsters:

A good rule of thumb when creating new things—monsters, animals, ranks and titles, and so on—is rather than create a new rule of grammar and usage to go with it, simply find the nearest real-world analog to that new thing and follow that rule.

For monsters, we’ll want to fall back on the rules for animals. Though we’ve seen a few examples, especially from H.P. Lovecraft, where the names of the monsters were capitalized, I suggest you let that be another of his quirks.

So if you’ve created a monster called a “bloodstalker,” and it’s clear that there’s more than one bloodstalker out there, it would be bloodstalker, lowercase b, the same way the b inbear would be lowercase if your characters were being hunted by a bear.

A possible exception would be if in some way that was a sort of brand name—appropriate maybe in science fiction but likely never in fantasy. So Dr. Morpheus has created the Bloodstalker, and you’d use the initial cap the same way you would for, say, a make of car: Dodge Caravan or Plymouth Destructinoid.

Of course, if the monster has a proper name, like my name is Phil, then you would follow that basic rule, i.e., Kong, Godzilla, etc.

This will also hold true for ranks and titles, so be careful with initial caps:

“Good morning, Lieutenant Galen,” Bronwyn said, using the capital L when the rank and name are used together.

“Good morning to you, too, Captain,” replied Galen, using the capital C because the rank or title is used in place of a name, while leaving it lowercase when referring to someone in the generic, as follows. “Have you seen any of the colonels around?”

  1. Avoid generic words with an initial cap in place of a proper name. I railed about this at Fantasy Author’s Handbook, but in short if your characters live in the City and go to the Temple to meet with the Priest to talk about what to do about the Mercenary—and none of those places or people have an actual name, you’re just not working hard enough. People name things! My name isn’t the Editor, it’s Phil. I live in a town called Sammamish, not the Town.


  1. Google everything! Got a great name for your hero… for any and every character in your story? Google them! If they’re also characters in Game of Thrones, even if that name has been around for millennia before George R.R. Martin was born, pass on it. If it shows up in your fantasy novel, a significant number of readers will assume you knifed it from GoT. Sometimes, clever names could even get you into (admittedly highly unlikely) legal trouble if they’re someone else’s trademark, but you’re probably not going to set your space opera story aboard the starship Coca-Cola.At least, I hope not! This won’t be necessary if your characters have names like Jon (even though there’s a Jon in Game of Thrones) or Luke (Star Wars) but Tyrian, Cersei, Vader, and Yoda? Nope, nope, nope, and nope.


—Philip Athans







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