Category Archives: Story behind the story

The Story Behind the Story: The Spider Strikes

The Spider Strikes is the third story in Atoms for Peace (available for purchase at Amazon in paperback and multiple retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble as an ebook). Like the others in the collection, I wrote it with an eye to setting things up for (the still-unfinished) Brains From Outer Space. Specifically, this would introduce Steve Flanagan, my primary protagonist, and introduce him to Gwen Montgomery who appeared in the initial story in the collection. It proved a lot of work, because there was a lot to introduce.

For one thing, in the two years since Atoms for Peace, Gwen’s becoming a science investigator for the Technology and Science Commission. The federal government has decided that to avoid the kind of mad-science research that figured in the first story (or in movies such as I Was a Teenage Werewolf or Fiend Without a Face), researchers must apply for a federal license. The TSC reviews them, deciding thumbs up or down. This can be based on potential risks (nuclear research is very unlikely to pass muster) or the character of the applicant (will they follow the rule). The guys behind the TSC (Senators Jack Kennedy and Richard Dorman pushed the bill that created it) realized that some researchers might just go ahead unlicensed, or start exceeding parameters once they got the license. Someone needed to investigate and prevent that, so the TSC suddenly acquired an investigating arm.

While I don’t go into a lot of detail, I had to explain the basics. And then there was Steve, whose backstory is a lot more complicated than Gwen’s or Dani Taylor’s. He and his brother Tommy grew up in a tenement, got taken away by social workers (this was largely accepted practice until decades later when it began affecting middle-class Americans) and raised in an orphanage (their parents, by the 1950s, are both dead). Tommy was a good, quiet kid; Steve pushed back against bullies, including the bullies on the staff. He got beat up a lot and went for  couple of short stays in reform school. After he realized the orphanage doctor was putting something bad in the shots he was giving the kids, he tried to smash all his equipment. That got him a long stay (what was in the injections? Well, that’s a key part of Brain).

Tommy got adopted by two Soviet agents who were caught working against the country. He disappeared. Steve, now all grown up, is determined to find him, somehow. While following up a trail in Philadelphia, he winds up helping Gwen against a killer robot spider. He doesn’t know it but his life path just changed …

One of the reasons Gwen recruits Steve to help her is that while some branches of Science Investigations allow women agents, they all insist on pairing them with men who can handle “the rough stuff.” Gwen is perfectly capable of handling trouble, but rules are rules; with her partner hospitalized early on, the only available alternative is a sexual harasser, so no. Telling her boss she’s found someone to handle the “rough stuff” so the harasser can stick to his current investigation solves that problem.

Throughout the book I’ve tried to acknowledge the sexism of the time without making it unpleasant to read. Hopefully I found the sweet spot (I feel better after reading  Robert Jackson Bennett’s argument that “realism” isn’t a good reason to show lots of rape).

*A minor alt.history point is my reference to the computer company Eckert-Mauchly. It’s named for the inventors who built ENIAC, the original computer, but wound up losing control and credit for their work. In this timeline they hung on to both. Philadelphia’s “Engineers’ Row” will wind up becoming the Silicon Valley of this timeline.

*A true history detail is the derogatory “slopie” for the North Koreans (Steve’s a Korean War vet). It occurred to me people might think it’s some kind of mutant, but no, just racist slang of the day.

#SFWApro. Cover by Zakaria Nada, rights are mine.

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Story Behind the Story: The Claws That Catch

In The Brain From Outer Space I introduced Dr. Dani Taylor, National Guard medic and girlfriend to my protagonist Steve Flanagan. I referenced her fighting something in Boston called the Devilfish, so for this story I decided to focus on that incident. That would also explain how she came to be a medic.

My template for the story was a straight 1950s SF: radioactive accident mutates lobsters, creates a race of humanoid Devilfish. They swarm into the city, killing and destroying. Dr. Danielle Taylor, daughter of Paul Taylor, distinguished founder of Taylor General, finds herself cut off with a young intern, a candy striper, a black doctor and her husband. They hole up in a department store; attempts to get anywhere invariably run into the Devilfish. Rather than run, they develop an improvised clinic for other strays — tourists, an injured National Guardsman, a pregnant woman.

As I fleshed out the story, it developed something of a Cloverfield tone. These aren’t the heroes fighting the monsters, they’re ordinary people struggling to stay alive and keep others alive. The battle we’d see in the movies is taking place somewhere off screen.

This gave me a much better handle on Dani’s character. She’s a daughter of privilege, her life clearly mapped out for her. She’s been following the map even though her parents died in the Invasion a couple of years earlier. Now, for the first time, she’s starting to see a different path, and she chooses to walk it.

She’s also very bad at triage. She wants to save everyone; as the story opens she’s given their last morphine to a dying guy instead of saving it for the living. That forces Dani to go out and scavenge for more. That’s definitely something I want to work into Brain From Outer Space when I rewrite it.

I’m also pleased with the period details in this one. Senator John F. Kennedy showing up. Smoking in hospital rooms. A passing reference to the then-current bestseller The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. Dani’s awkwardness at working with a black doctor. Like I said in last week’s post, writing racist protagonists doesn’t come easily to me, but I try not to write them as too modern either.

I also included several continuity references showing how things have developed since Atoms for Peace: hearings confirming the AEC corruption, another rogue experiment with a nuclear powered rocket (the sort of thing that shows the need for Science Investigators). I’m pleased with it. Hopefully whoever buys the book is too.

#SFWApro. All rights to image remain with current holder.

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The Story Behind the Story: Atoms for Peace

Woot! Atoms for Peace and Other Stories is available for purchase at Amazon in paperback and other retailers such as Barnes & Noble as an ebook. Unlike Atlas Shagged, the stories in this one are all tied together, part of an alternative 1950s in which movies such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, War of the Worlds, Creature With the Atom Brain, Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Them! were all real. While I’ve covered most of the stories in early Story Behind the Story blog posts, I started this blog after the first story had come out. So here’s the odd tale of how the book and the first story came to be.

Back in the 1990s, Clinton’s Secretary of Energy, Hazel O’Leary, declassified the reports about U.S. radiation experiments on unwitting patients (they weren’t told what the doctors were doing, or given an option to consent). That started me thinking (at least I think so, the exact chain of reasoning is a bit blurry after so long) about how that mirrored so many SF films of the 1950s, like I Was a Teenage Werewolf (and gives the lie to every How To Write SF article that declares mad scientists experimenting on innocent people could never happen in real life). And then it hit me: what would the US be like if those movies had been real? If by the end of the 1950s we’d been under attack by multiple aliens, radioactive mutants, pod people and reanimated dinosaurs?

Hmmm …well scientific research would be tightly regulated, of course. With investigators to double-check nobody was doing illegal experiments on the sly. The National Guard would be busy fighting mutant horrors. And maybe we’d have made it into space years earlier than we did. Now if you throw the effects of one of those radiation experiments into the mix …

I liked it. But back then I had a day job, so The Brain From Outer Space took a long time to work on. Finally I had it in reasonably satisfactory shape around 2008 or 9. Then it hit me the first chapter, written to show investigators Steve Flanagan and Gwen Montgomery on a case and so introduce my world, worked pretty well as a standalone short story. So I tweaked it a little and sent it out.

The Big Pulp website liked it and accepted it. Then they suggested I write a series of stories leading up to it, showing how my world came to be so different. I jumped at the chance. The stories are still up there, if you’re curious. Unfortunately some of the elements and relationships in the book no longer fit the backstory. I’d also discovered problems in the story that really needed fixing. The book needed a major overhaul … and to date, I haven’t been able to fix it.

But the stories are still worth it.

The first story, Atoms for Peace, takes it’s name from the post-war slogan: sure, the a-bomb was terrifying but nuclear energy, turned to peaceful uses, was our friend! Wonderful things would come from it (check out the book Nukespeak for a look at the sunny nuclear utopianism of the era). The Atomic Energy Commission (now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) was supposed to both regulate and promote the industry; it usually came down on the “promote” side and did its best to minimize the risks of radiation.

I decided that would be the basis for my story: the first documented case of “rogue science,” using ordinary people as guinea pigs. My protagonist would be Southerner Gwen Montgomery, former OSS agent. As the story opens in 1954, Gwen thinks she’s done with adventuring. But then she found the strange half-man half-lizard under the street light …

It’s a good story and I think it’s a good book. It’s a lot whiter than I’d do it today (I hope), but I know from Southern Discomfort that simply switching some of my characters to black or Latino would take lots of work, especially in a world where segregation is still the norm. As I wrote this to reuse old work, not start fresh, I kept it as it was. Though I’m pleased with my female representation as Dani, Kate Meara, Gwen and Claire all get a good share of the adventure.

I’ll have more to say about the book next week. Hopefully you’ll all have bought it by then.

#SFWApro. Cover by Zakaria Nada, all rights are mine.

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The Story Behind the Story: The End of the World on the Cutting Room Floor (#SFWApro)

The End of the World on the Cutting Room Floor is now out in the new issue of Space and Time. So here’s the backstory.

As anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, I love movies. Probably more than a decade ago (maybe twenty years? I’m honestly not sure) I had a great concept for a movie-based story. The world has somehow transformed into a movie reality where everyone has become a film character (I’ve no idea now what my original rationale for this transformation was), except for my protagonist. He’s conscious of what happened so instead of reacting as a character would, he can think outside the movie formula. In the opening scene, for example, he kills a vampire when they meet instead of blithely accepting the invitation to stay in his isolated castle overnight; the vamp dies baffled how the protagonist knew.

The two pages I wrote based on this idea then sat in my files for probably a decade. When I finally looked at the story again, I saw why. My protagonist was simply too detached, too ironic about what was happening. But hmm, what if he wasn’t detached? What if he was aware of the big change to reality, but also part of it? Knowing he was living a film cliche, but unable to change things?

So was born Harry Davis, hardboiled PI in a world that doesn’t make sense. Where the diner he meets his newest client at is frequented by the sailors from On the Town, commies from a 1950s Red Scare film and a cyborg from some direct-to-DVD SF adventure. Where you travel a few miles from the heart of New York and you find yourself at the isolated Hotel Alucard.  Harry knows the real world ended, but he doesn’t know why the afterlife — if that’s what this is — looks the way it does. He doesn’t know why he alone remembers the old world, recognizes the movie characters around him. But he can’t stop events forcing him to live the life of a hardboiled PI movie. He can’t remember who he used to be. Much to his annoyance, he doesn’t recognize whatever actor’s face he wears now.

The plot centers on finding a mysterious McGuffin and allows me to take Harry from the rougher side of the Big Apple to battling Satanic cults to meeting with an old flame. I also got to include one of my favorite Bela Lugosi lines, borrowed from Black Dragons (“All people are in danger of dying …”).

While the setting drew heavily from old 1930s and 1940s movies, I worked to add more variety in the background characters. I had one supporting character who was modeled on 1970s blacksploitation films (a PI a la Shaft) but he got dropped when the story got too cumbersome. It wound up a less diverse story than I’d intended.

I got feedback from a couple of writing groups. One point, which I fixed quickly, was that in the draft of the story I’d read, we never learned who Harry looks like. I fixed that in the subsequent draft.

 

Another significant change was that I’d originally had an ending in which Harry mulls over what it all means. One which set him up for further adventures, even though I didn’t have any in mind (my mind doesn’t seem to run to series — too bad as they’re a good selling point). Someone suggested cutting that and they were right. The ending as it is now packs much more punch.

So there’s the story behind the story. Now go read (you can order online here) and (hopefully) enjoy.

All rights to images remain with the current holders.

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The Story Behind the Story: Backstage With the Hypothetical Dead (#SFWApro)

As I noted Sunday, Backstage With the Hypothetical Dead is now live at On the Premises. The “second place” is because they structure each issue as a contest, and I came in second (obviously). Which was good enough to get published (and paid!) so here’s the story on how it came to be.

Back in 2012, when I read the seminal urban fantasy War for the Oaks, I commented that all the stuff about the protagonist putting a band together became very boring as the book went on. I added I’d have been more interested, maybe, if they’d been working in theater, which is much closer to my heart than music.

Then I reflected that there’s very little theater in specfic. Lots of music — Mercedes’ Lackey’s Bedlam’s Bard, Charles deLint’s buskers and Irish fiddlers — but not much theater. And then I thought hmm, why grumble about it when you could be writing a specfic theater story. So I started work on The Stage is a World, a story that begins with one of the backstage crew discovering a ghost and reacting very loudly — audible to the audience loudly. This did not go over well, particularly with Janice, the stage manager, who came close to kicking him off the show. But didn’t. And then, of course, the ghost returns …

After several drafts, I discovered two apparently intractable problems. I had Janice and Tony, my protagonist, becoming a couple, and that didn’t seem to work. And no explanation I came up with for the ghost seemed to work at all. And while I liked the structure — the ghost appears during different shows in the course of a community theater’s year — I worried it was too inside baseball (the setting is modeled on the group I worked with for years). I read Fritz Leiber’s Four Ghosts in Hamlet for inspiration but that didn’t help.

I eventually decided I’d set Tony and Janice to being friends, instead. And I’d leave the nature of the ghost, who it was, why it was, completely ambiguous. When I read it to the writer’s group, however, the consensus seemed to be that I had no conclusion — everything was too ambiguous. My best friend and fellow writer Cindy Holbrook said it needed more of a personal arc too.

So back to work. I decided the personal arc was the key to having a satisfying ending, so I de-aged Tony, made him a relative rookie with the theater group, and watched him slowly meld into the community over the course of the year. And I had the ghost do something definite at the climax, it’s just that nobody’s sure what or why. I thought that set the balance just right.

Then came submission. Then came rejection. One magazine said it simply wandered in the middle sections, which was a fair criticism, but I decided to keep it the way it was. Then I saw On the Premises was holding a contest for an upcoming issue in which the theme was community, and becoming part of a community. That fit so perfectly, I submitted. And sold it!

Go, read. Enjoy. And as proof of my theater bonafides, here’s a shot of my with one of my two awards from when I was with Act4Murder dinner theater.

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The Story Behind the Story: Dark Satanic Mills (#SFWApro)

Dark Satanic Mills is the last story in Atlas Shagged to get a Story Behind the Story blog post because it’s the first one to be published. It came out in 2007 in Tales of the Talisman, and I wasn’t doing these posts back then. I didn’t even have this blog—my writing-related blog posts were still going up on MySpace (god I’m old). The first drafts came several years earlier, and in contrast to Dean Wesley Smith’s advice, they were rewritten and transformed radically by the time I finished.

As originally conceived, the story was going to be grimdark before grimdark was a word. A bleak, unflinching look at how horrible life can be and how we paper it over with comforting lies and illusions. I’m not sure what exactly prompted me to start down that road, because that’s not my usual style. Was it some particular horror that had happened in the world? Personal issues? I don’t know.

What I do know is that at one point in the story, the protagonist’s friend quotes from a magazine article that mentions in passing that every guy working in corporate America has had the experience of banging a hot coworker in the supply closet. That was something I’d seen in an actual article about dating and sleeping with coworkers and reading it just made my eyes roll (I do not for a minute believe every man has had that experience). When the friend talks about the article, the protagonist sneers that nobody has the kind of perfect lives the friend reads about in lifestyle magazines. In reality everyone’s just as miserable as they are.

Not a crucial scene, though I did enjoy venting. But then on the next draft I threw in the protagonist saying something to the effect of “I know all those articles are shit, because I used to write for those magazines.” And on the next draft followed that up with ” … which are all the tools of Satan to make us miserable!”

Suddenly it was no longer grimdark. I suppose it could have been, but over the next few drafts it mutated into a chick-lit parody. As so many chick-lit novels involved young women trying to make it in publishing (e.g., Devil Wears Prada) so my male protagonist became Cerise, a plucky Midwestern Satanist struggling to make it in Big Apple lifestyle-magazine publishing. Which is indeed all the work of Satan to make us miserable, hence articles built around Buy this $300 tie and finally get laid! or The high-sugar diet — science proves the pounds melt away!

Suffice to say, things got absurd fast. And I really love some of the little details, such as Cerise’ boss wearing clubbed-sealskin boots. Some details I did not love so much: there was some non-consensual sex offstage that made me a little uncomfortable when I reread it, so I cut that for this publication (I think it was appropriate for the setting, but it still didn’t work for me).

The title comes from an old English hymn tied to the movement against child labor, referring to England’s factories as “dark, Satanic mills.” Photo of a dark, not particularly Satanic mill comes from Diamond Environmental Ltd., all rights remain with current holder.

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The Story Behind the Story: Atlas Shagged (#SFWApro)

The roots of my Atlas Shagged collection’s title story Atlas Shagged unsurprisingly lie with Ayn Rand. Or more specifically the 2012 Atlas Shrugged Part Two film.

Not anything specific to the film, but after TYG and I saw it (she liked it a little better than I did) I joked Atlas Shagged would be a much better film. And then my brain went hmmm ….

TYG had mentioned once that when the Internet was in its infancy, the peopel working for online porn sites were considered very cool because they had the best, most advanced toys — porn sites were taking online payments long before anyone else, for instance. So I conceived of a future where “Big Johnson” Galt is a former porn star who sets out to stop the motor that runs the world — sex.

The story came of Big Johnson Galt and porn producer Ayn Randy came together pretty quickly. Then I read it to my writers’ group, who loved it, but made several suggestions for improvement. I followed them and sent Atlas Shagged out into the world.

The world sent it back. Repeatedly. Some of the responses were our old friend, “not quite right for us.” One humor magazine loved it, but worried too many people wouldn’t be familiar enough with Rand to get the joke (that’s certainly possible). Several complained that what I’d written wasn’t really a story: there was no central character, no dialog and the whole thing was written at a distance, like I was recapping an even for a history book instead of telling a story.

That last one is a valid criticism — I was writing it more like a news article summarizing events than regular fiction. But I think that still counts as a story; I’ve read a few published SF stories that did the same. At flash fiction lengths, it didn’t seem an unworkable tactic. But editors didn’t agree.

Besides which the range of markets I could submit to was smaller than usual. A number of magazines say flat out they don’t want erotica or graphic sex, and while nobody’s actually having sex on the page in Atlas Shagged, I was pretty sure it qualified.

So finally I tried rewriting it into a more conventional structure, using a minor government employee as my central character. But after getting a few pages into my first draft, I gave up. I was pretty sure reworking Atlas Shagged would lose a lot of the humor and wouldn’t gain much of anything. And it’s not as if reworking it would guarantee a quick sale — my stories never sell quickly. So why was I bothering?

Instead, the idea of just publishing it myself took root, and finally that’s the route I went. Backed up by multiple other stories, of course (as listed here). As it didn’t cost me anything except time, what have I got to lose?

So there you have it. I’ll be back tomorrow with the story behind my chick lit parody Dark Satanic Mills.

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The tide has turned and caught me at full flood! (#SFWApro)

So as I mentioned a while back, I picked up three different paying gigs in addition to Screen Rant: the Leaf project (now wrapped up), freelance work for a network of legal papers and money management how-to articles for GOBankingrates. Only the latter two of the four never assigned me anything.

But then the week before my trip to Greenville, GOBankingrates asked if I was up for an article. I had to pass until after the trip, but earlier this week they called again. So I took the assignment (how to get pre-approved for a mortgage). The information was simple enough — it’s similar to the stuff I’ve done for Leaf — but like Screen Rant, they have their own format and style rules, and getting it written to comply with them consumed a lot of time. Not that they’re unreasonable, but it always goes slow the first time I try to follow a style guide. But it’s done, and assuming no problems, it will work out to a great hourly rate.

But all that work on mortgage pre-approval sucked up a lot of time I’d have spent for fiction. And the irrational conviction I Have No Time, I Can’t Get It Done when I have a tight deadline kept me up early. Plus I was working on two Screen Rants, this week’s (not out yet) and a big Wonder Woman article due in a couple of weeks. So it was a little frantic.

And today, the early rising got to me. I went to sleep right after lunch and when I woke up I just lay down with the pups for another hour. Then read for another hour instead of writing. I was in overtime for the week, so I don’t feel bad about it, but I almost never blow off an afternoon even so. Guess I was more tired than I thought.

So what did I get done?

•I reread Undead Sexist Cliches — the Book, because I did almost nothing on it last month and I needed a better sense of what I’d already covered.

•I got another 5,000 words done on Southern Discomforts.

•I had a great idea for my short story, Trouble and Glass, that will resolve some of the problems I’ve been having with it. I’d hoped to actually work on the text, but that time got lost in the nonfiction push.

•I was supposed to talk on the phone with someone I applied to for another nonfiction gig. And that we jumped to phone is a good sign, I think — however, life intervened on his end. Next week, hopefully.

On top of which I managed to keep up exercising, and to give the kitchen a really thorough cleaning while the dogs were in day care (it’s not the best way to spend my dog-free day, but it beats having them try to nose around me while I’m spraying cleaning products).

Next week, now that I know to budget time for the GOBankingrate, perhaps things will go smoother. We shall see …

Oh, and Digital Fantasy Fiction just reprinted my short story He Kindly Stopped For Me. If Death knocked on your door and asked to use your phone, how would you react? Feel free to check out the Story Behind The Story from when it first came out.

Cover art by Jack Kirby, all rights reside with current holder.

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Story Behind the Story: The Savage Year (#SFWApro)

savageyears3-375x600As I mentioned last week, The Savage Year is now out in the online magazine Lorelei Signal with that great illustration by Lee Ann Barlow (all rights to image reside to current holder).

The opening: “Walking past a half-naked couple making out next to a picnic basket, Artemis West wished she could turn invisible. I never thought my first assignment would involve working magic in front of a park full of hippies.

It’s 1968, Robert Kennedy has just been assassinated, and the country is mourning. And as Artemis soon discovers, her job as a Secret Service sorcerer is about to get much more complicated, thanks to a British black magician and a bronze-skinned, golden-eyed drifter, Diana Savage. Whose father is some kind of brilliant scientist and philanthropist, and everyone expects her to follow in his wake. So she’s run away for a summer of love before she heads to college. Only there are innocent people in danger, and in her heart she’s her father’s child …

Why yes, this is the story about Doc Savage’s daughter that I wrote about starting several years ago. As noted at the link, I’d wanted to write about her (or more precisely my version of her) since the early 1980s, but never came up with a story. Then I hit on teaming her up with Art West, great grandson of James West, the hero of Wild Wild West now following family tradition by working for the Secret Service, though as a mage.
That frankly floored me when I reread it. Now that I think about it I can dimly remember Artemus West, but he’s been Artemis and female so long I didn’t remember it any other way (Jim West’s partner was Artemus Gordon. So descendants are stuck with the name). Although as I write a lot of male/female teams, it’s not surprising (I’ve no idea why I switched).I do know the basic concept shaped up early. Mages in the Secret Service actually have a dull gig. All they do is go around and touch up the bindings Native American shamans used to lock various Lovecraftian outsiders away. As long as the mages do their job, the outsiders can’t get out.Except that when Artemis goes to check the local bindings (originally San Francisco, but it eventually shifted to the Midwest) she discovers someone is letting outsiders loose. Which is, of course, bad. Even with a bronze teenage tornado who fights like ten men (she’s Doc Savage’s daughter. She’s been well-trained) Artemis has a hard time stopping the bad guy.Unfortunately I had no idea what the bad guy planned to do. Or what his plan was — I wanted multiple encounters between his monsters and the women. Or exactly how to stop him. Eventually I figured it out, with the help of Lester Dent’s plotting formula — appropriate as he created Doc. I also trimmed back a lot of the in-jokes. I wanted to make sure that someone who’d never heard of Jim West or Doc Savage could still enjoy the story. That meant avoiding anything that would make readers stop and go “Huh? What’s that supposed to refer to?” There’s one reference to Artemis’ family (creepy uncle Herbert West, from an HP Lovecraft story) but nothing more. Perhaps if there’s a next time …Then I shared it with some beta-readers who made some good suggestions. First, that as the malevolent Covenant-Price doesn’t appear until the end, it’s hard to build him as an antagonist. Now he’s in multiple scenes. Second, that there were places I needed to make things even weirder in a couple of places. I think I succeeded.Lorelei Signal is free, so go ahead and check it out. Especially my contribution.

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Story Behind the Story: Nuclear Winter (#SFWApro)

tangent-nuclear-winter-coverOops, despite having the RPG module Nuclear Winter (artist Chandra Reyer, all rights to cover image with current holders) come out last month I didn’t get around to doing a Story Behind the Story. But better late than never, right? Or you can just go now and download the game for a small fee. Just saying.

Some years back I’d picked up a copy of the Beyond the Supernatural game and I liked it. For those who don’t know, it’s a modern-set RPG in which the players are mages or psychics of various kinds. For those who’d rather be a two-fisted physical type there’s the nega-psychic (protective psychic shields rather than active powers) and the Natural (channels psychic energy into some mundane area, making them phenomenally strong, acrobatic, etc.).

My initial thought was for a game set in the Victorian era, but it never got off the ground — at the time I didn’t have enough people to play. Gaming has always been something I’ve done within my circle of friends (or circles, as they shifted over time) and there weren’t enough friends ready to play at the time.

Later, for reasons that now escape me, I began to think about the potential for running a 1930s version instead. And even though I didn’t have anyone to play with, an idea for the first campaign formed in my head (I GMed for a decade, so maybe it’s not surprising I keep thinking of “ooh, that would be a good campaign”). “White Russians” — supporters of the Tsar during the Russian revolution — were a staple of 1930s movies, typically as hangers-on using their aristocratic connections to spunge off rich socialites. And there were in the real world no shortage of pretenders to the Russian throne, people who claimed to be the last of the Romanovs.

So my villain would be one such count. An arrogant man who tops the other pretenders by claiming he’s not only heir to the Russian throne but a descendant of the Rus, the Vikings who founded the nation. Of course, he’s telling the truth. And as it happens, the Rus included some warriors descended from the frost giants. My villain would be descended from them, an ice mage who’s come to New York with a mission. Somewhere in town lies a magical talisman that will enable him to summon his frost giant kin to Earth, unleash an apocalyptic Fimbulwinter and make him king of a frozen world.

Other than wondering occasionally if I could turn that into a premise for a story, I did nothing with it. Then one of my writing-group friends put me in touch with Curtis Baum at D3 Adventures. I wound up suggesting my ice mage idea for one of the Tangent modules. These are designed as one-evening quickies, easy to customize to an existing set of PCs and to whatever game system the GM uses. Reworking my idea, I scaled things down and simplified them. Count Belorsky is just a Russian ice mage and Tsar Nicholas’ bastard son; his goal is to freeze Russia long enough for conquest, not to bring on a new ice age. Though as a test for his powers, he’ll freeze over New York first.

I had fun fleshing out Belorsky, his hulking bodyguard Tolstoy (shamelessly inspired by Dr. Loveless’ brutal aide Voltaire in Wild, Wild West) and adding a new character, a millionaire descended from Russian peasants. He despises the aristocratic, arrogant count and vice versa. Getting down the gaming details — settings, maps, progression from one encounter to another — was a lot more work, but I’m pleased with the results. Hopefully y’all will be too.

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