The History of Department Y

This is a tricky post to write because I am terrible at self promotion. However it has occurred to me that I’ve been writing for over a year about the process of finishing my novel and querying it and doubting it and wondering if I’ve been concentrating on the right novel but I haven’t really talked about the novel itself. Any of the novels.

I’ve written several, though only one is ready to send out, and most of them share a setting. I don’t really want to talk a lot about the novels. I don’t want to spoil them. I want them to be published and you to go and buy them. But maybe it’s time to talk about that setting.

The novels and stories that I’ve been working on recently all take place on an alternative Earth where the old Gods are real, magic works and stories have power. But it’s all pretty subtle and most people don’t know. It’s so subtle that the history of that world almost exactly mirrors our own.

Just like in our world Hitler rose to power in the 1930s, surrounded himself with sycophants and plunged the world into war. Just like in our world some of those sycophants were occultists and most of them had as weak a grasp of science as they did of morality. Just like in our world the British intelligence services consulted British occultists to work out how to influence the more superstitious Nazis and predict what they might do.

Just like in our world the Germans were using Enigma machines to code their radio transmissions. They believed the Enigma code was unbreakable. Just like in our world the British codebreakers based at Station X (Bletchley Park) broke the unbreakable code. The intelligence they gained this way was called Ultra and it was the biggest secret of World War II.

In real life history the British government went to enormous lengths to disguise the source of Ultra. In the world of my stories they created a fake intelligence agency called Department Y and stocked it with occultists and witches and psychics and Druids and planned to claim it as the source for Ultra. They didn’t tell the people they’d hired that it was fake. Nobody outside Department Y took it seriously until the magic started working.

No one had ever put that many magical experts together in one place before. The pressure of the war and the atmosphere of camaraderie was as effective on occultists as it was on the mathematicians and cryptologists at Bletchley and the physicists working on the Manhattan Project.

Department Y grew throughout the war years. After the surrender of Germany Department Y operatives were active throughout Europe putting down the dark forces unleashed by an unintentional, continent-wide blood sacrifice. Department Y was never shut down and still operates under rules set in a secret section of the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act of 1939. When the police, the armed forces or the intelligence services of the United Kingdom run into something beyond their ken they know where to go for help. It became known simply as “The Department” because if you have to ask which department you’re not cleared for the answer.

In the modern world the Department is still around, still doing the same job, still saving the world or at least making sure that it remains interesting but not lethally so.

In the world of the Department.

Science and magic are one.

All the ancient stories are true, even the ones that are mutually incompatible.

The Gods of every pantheon are real, for a given value of real, and they might answer your prayers but not always how you’d like.

The Fae folk are real and just as dangerous as the legends say.

There are witches and druids and shapechangers and dreamwalkers and proper mad scientists and living constructs and AIs and most of them just want to do a decent days work for a decent wage and then go to the pub on a Friday.

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X Because Y

The other day I realised that I’ve never shared one of my favourite narrative games with you all. I didn’t come up with it the idea and I’m probably not the first person to call it this. I might be the first person to call it a game though.

I first put a name to it when I was trying to explain the plot of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter to my brother and I said, “Abraham Lincoln because Vampires.” By which I meant “The real, known events of Abraham Lincoln’s life with the gaps filled in with Vampires and the Vampires used to explain the events.”

It’s closely related to the much better known X meets Y technique. You all know how that works. Noir meets androids gives you Blade Runner kind of thing. Note that the two techniques do not give the same results. Abraham Lincoln meets Vampires could still be an interesting story but not nearly as powerful. Noir because androids could be something but it ain’t Blade Runner and androids because noir sounds like a Westworld spin off.

You can use both techniques with any combination of fictional tropes, plots, people, stories and historical events. You can use it to generate your own ideas or break down existing ones.  They usually won’t give you a whole plot but it’s a good place to start and it’s great for settings and world building.

Why not play at home? Pick up any two DVDs, comics or books and combine. For added credit pick three. Make the first one the plot then create the background, setting or premise using the other two.

I got Crimson Peak, The Conan Chronicles by R.E. Howard, and The Night Watch by Terry Pratchett. So that gives me a tortured gothic romance for the plot. From Conan I could take the hero himself or the idea of a slave who becomes a king. From The Night Watch I could take time travel, or becoming one own’s mentor or the cynical commander of a police force. So one version would be Conan the Barbarian because time travel in which a barbarian king travels back in time to mentor his youthful enslaved self through his rise to power. The whole thing is horribly derailed by a romance plot when the old king and the young slave fall for the same person who plays them off against each other.

Do tell me how you get on.

Thoughts on Guardians of the Galaxy V2

More than a week ago now I took my son into see Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2. I’ve already said that I recommend it to anyone who likes action, sci fi, superhero or family movies and anyone who aspires to be a writer. Now I’m going to talk about why I recommend it so highly. There will be mild spoilers.

GotG V2 is a fantastic example of how you tell a compelling story with a large cast of characters that has a strong central narrative but takes time to give most of the supporting casts their own story arc. You never get the feeling that the secondary characters exist only to further the hero’s quest. Even though Starlord/Peter Quill is clearly the primary character every other character is the protagonist of their own story.

If you want a masterclass in info-dumps that don’t feel like info-dumps, exposition that reveals character, and backstory that informs the action then you need to see this film.  There’s a massive amount of narrative stuff that has to be shoehorned into the film without slowing it down and somehow it works.

GotG V2 is a film that does not compromise. Just as Volume 1 was unashamed of the ambulatory tree, the talking racoon and the dance off Volume 2 is unafraid to set a massive fight scene in the background of baby groot putting on Peter’s tunes and dancing and reveal Peter’s father to be a planet.

There’s a lot of lazy storytelling in the world and action films are usually rife with it but not this one. No-one ever does anything for reasons of plot. Every action taken by every character is driven by that character’s internal logic. Yes they do stupid and illogical things but they do them because they are frail and flawed in entirely believable ways. And those flaws are revealed to stem from their personal traumas and struggles.

Throughout the film people make terrible decisions because of the terrible decisions of the past but one of the film’s themes is moving past that to make better decisions in the future. Some characters double down on their previous poor decision making and some learn from their mistakes. Guess which ones have the more positive arcs.

I really have to stop talking about it now or I will drop some serious spoilers. This is not the last you’re going to hear from me on this subject. In the coming weeks I’m going to take some of the themes of the film apart and show you why I think they’re remarkably good.

Storybuilder’s Toolbox: Leah Chiasson’s Marked For The Hunt

Welcome to our very first guest post. Let me introduce you to Leah Chiasson.

Leah has been dreaming stories for as long as she can remember. It started with a cute parable written in the back of a school note book and now she’s the author of MARKED FOR THE HUNT, available on Amazon.com as well as a ghostwriter on Upwork.com.

More importantly, she is small town born and raised. She grew up on the bank of the St. Lawrence River, the place where you can find castles with tragic love stories and pirate treasure coves. Where else would a fantasy author want to live? Since then, married life has taken her across more than 17 states, but now she’s mostly settled upon the shores of snowy Lake Ontario where she’s sure there are more fantastic stories to be dug up.

Diana Warren left her Clan behind when one of their own betrayed her and killed her father. She vowed to live her life as a Faoladh, a wolf, apart from those who betrayed her, even if it means a dangerous, solitary life. But, there are those who have other ideas about her life.

When her grandfather, the Clan’s most recent Alpha, passes away, Diana reluctantly agrees to pay her respects in person. Upon arriving in her childhood home of Wolf’s Head she finds herself in the middle of a civil war.

On one side is the man who killed her father and on the other side is his son, a man she cannot trust anymore. Counting down the days until she can leave, the body of an old friend spurs not only Diana into action.

Their Goddess has returned and he has chosen to mark Diana with her favor. All Diana has to do is put her faith in a man who broke her heart years ago and try not to die in the process.

CD: I’m interested in how you went about creating the werewolves. There’s so many different werewolves and other shape-changers in fiction and folklore and they all have different rules. How did you choose which features to use in yours? How did you build your werewolves?

LC: In my book, I wanted a magical creature that most certainly wasn’t a vampire. Of course, this led me right to werewolves. Looking back now I realize that I am really attracted to shape shifter stories, especially werewolves. It was no wonder why I went with that route. Knowing that there are a plethora of werewolf books out there, I wanted to make them at least a little different. I didn’t know in the beginning exactly where I would end up going with them, but I’m happy with the result.

Instead of the half man/half wolf trope, I wanted a creature that was more natural and wild. I went with the transformation from human to wolf, doing away with the painful shifting process that many other books have used. Instead, I imagine that nerves would be out of commission during a process in which the body entirely changes. The body would be a mess of the tingling sensation you get when your foot falls asleep with the added feeling of joints popping. Loving magic as much as I do, I figured that the more magic in a shifter’s body, the faster the change could take place.

It wasn’t until much later in the drafting process that I came across the myth of the Faoladh (FOW-LUH, because I understand that’s one weird word). In Irish mythology, a Faoladh was a type of werewolf similar to the berserker of Nordic mythology, except for one key change. The Faoladh was seen as a protector. The Irish werewolf wasn’t a senseless killer or something to be afraid of. It protected children and the weak. I liked that idea for my werewolves, especially while I play with a theme that questions what makes a monster. It helped me steer away from calling their group a Pack. Instead, I use the term Clan to denote a sense of family among the wolves.

CD: Once you found the Faoladh did you stop there and just decide to go with your own interpretation of the myth or did you do more research?

LC: There was little out there to easily find on the Faoladh myth. Instead of devoting too much time to the research, I figured that it’s myth and therefore malleable. I took the premise that I loved and molded it into what I wanted it to be for my story, subsequently adding more features to the myth. There are many things that Diana will come across in the book that I’ve added myself! The idea that there are few female Faoladh is one of them.

And there you have it. Just one way to build a werewolf. I know a couple of other writers with their own take on werewolves. Perhaps I’ll be able to persuade them to tell us how they built them. For the next few posts I expect I shall be back to complaining about stuff but keep an eye out for future opportunities to rummage in the toolbox.

I write because I have no choice

I have tried to stop writing. I really have. I’ve tried to persuade myself that I’m not a writer and that I will never be published so none of the writing I do counts. I’m, not expecting success as a writer because I’m fairly sure that no-one is interested in what I have to say.

None of this helps.  It seems that I am a writer because I can’t choose not to be.  More than that.  I am a storyteller because I can’t choose not to be.  I really can’t help it   I automatically arrange any sequence of events into a narrative.  I think in tropes and dialogue and character development.

Of course that’s partly because my life is so fucking awful that I need something else to think about.  This neatly links into my motto.  “Always look on the bright side.  If you can’t find the bright side polish the dark side.”

More on that later.