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What stories might originate here?

© 2020 G.N. Jacobs

Dark ruined castles. Faraway sand swept plains dotted with evaporator towers. Orbital debris fields that are just one bad breakfast burrito away from an abandonment order like the Somme Battlefield. Cities cut by extreme tide surges out of basalt and obsidian. All of these places that mostly exist between my ears are exactly that places and if I could I’d open them up to travel agents and sell tickets…oh, right, write the F@$&ing book.

These imaginary places are also a convenient excuse for discussing how choosing the right locations changes the story.

Let’s take my most recent usage of dark ruined castle that time seems to have passed by. I watched the animated Beauty & the Beast again. I start asking questions the way I sometimes have to ask funny questions of all of my fan enthusiasms…

HOW MUCH FOOD WAS IN THE FREEZER? (see post)

GOLDFINGER’S PLOT TO IRRADIATE THE GOLD VAULT, COULD THE US GOVERNMENT RENDER ITS EFFECTS MOOT WITH A CAREFULLY CONSTRUCTED BIG LIE? (post pending…maybe)

The question I had for the both the Disney movies highlighted by a dance in a yellow dress was this – “the sleepy little French village where Belle lives before going into the woods seems walking distance from the Beast’s castle, wouldn’t there be a built up legend about the dark woods and the monster reputed to live there?”

This question rattled around in my subconscious along with the other more consciously derived elements when I started playing around with goofing on a sequel/not sequel describing what happens after the kiss, fireworks and the assertion without proof that they lived happily ever after. I know I’m going to throw in an element where Belle (sorry, renamed Helena-Linda Aranajeuz de Feo) gets so freaking bored after reading every book in the Beast’s considerable library that she starts writing her own books to keep sane. I know I’m going to need something more than the lady of the house yelling at poor Lumiere to bring more ink and clean up the pile of false starts on the floor. And I know I need a location for the castle that makes the time passed it by quality of the original story.

I can’t claim my solution to the last question was entirely conscious. I started giving Helena-Linda her vaguely Spanish nature as a way to have her be named Belle without being named Belle. Thus, I changed languages to Spanish and go with Helena (prettiest woman in Ancient Greece), Linda (pretty in Spanish) and a made-up surname that sounds like a concerto by Rodrigo I happen to like and hear a lot. And de Feo (ugly) is a good married surname for the Beast’s wife in French.

Without even consciously addressing the question of how the Beast in his castle is completely unknown to the villagers in the nearby community, by picking languages I backhandedly solve the problem…The Pyrenees. A border area between France and Spain, the mountain range also has the tall confusing mountain trails where you might get lost and find a castle that time has forgotten only to never find it again on the second try. Places where the magic required, doesn’t have to work as hard to say hidden.

I would’ve had to answer the question eventually. And I would get to the same place where once I have the answer to – “where do they live?” – I also have part of the answer to who these people are. Suddenly, I’m writing a few pages where Belle refers to the Beast as Señor and the Beast calls her Madame and I can sort of justify that most of their words rendered in English for the benefit of the reader as a common in between dialect that’s neither French nor Spanish.

Let’s talk about the Obsidian City. This place I’m really hoping to put on the metaphorical surf safari for you all. Sources for the city include whichever nature show talked about the Bay of Fundy with its forty-foot tide shifts last. Or the since abandoned story in which the city first appeared, an interstellar fairytale with quite a few shared elements with several traditional tales. The even more pie in the sky sequel would’ve had the title, “Sleeping Beauty Don’t Surf!” (thank you, Major Kilgore). When I realized I needed to rewrite another book centered on a great city, I just did the fold, spindle mutilate job all writers do and ported the city over.

Unpacking these mostly subconscious decisions leads you to all kinds of revelations that branch out in all directions. More basalt, a gray-black volcanic flow rock, is created by the nearby volcano, than true obsidian, a volcanic glass good for early spears and killing ice zombies. I get to comment about a city calling itself the Obsidian City for branding purposes…sounds way cooler.

I’ve also as a matter of narrative just created a volcano. Wow! At some point the savvy reader will ask when the writer gets bored of the place and just have Vesuvius blow the hell up and bury Pompeii already. Have I just created opposing religious cults, one for appeasing the volcano goddess and the one for nihilistically encouraging said next eruption? And how will these story elements show up in the everyday speech and patterns of doing business in the city?

A volcano on top of the already fantastic tide surge, I must either really hate the Obsidian City or, unlike the Chinese Emperor I see some value in – “May you live in interesting times.”

And with an eye towards being plausible, deciding on the Obsidian City as my city also affects other nearby places on the map, specifically the blighted land of Crodol. My city is a stand-in for Minas Tirith, which means that the bad guy abode is going to be the same distance away as Mordor is from Minas Tirith. It follows that the tide surges that turn Obsidian City into the kind of place where everyone runs upstairs twice a day to avoid hell and high water also afflict Crodol, described as reclaimed from the sea/tidal basin by sea walls. Gee, different engineering solutions to the same geographical problem. How does this affect…

Truthfully, I just came up with the place so my hero from California could do a little urban surfing to impress his queen. Choose a location and watch how it affects many other elements of your story, because where and how we live is part of who we are as anything else.

I don’t just have to answer these types of questions with the fantastic and faraway. Some of my stories are clearly about Los Angeles suburbia where I got to grow up and had to leave once it became clear I couldn’t afford to live there as an adult. A place of wide streets and tall trees to accommodate football games that end when I punt the ball into the treetops.

And yes, there are apartments and condos with slightly different vibes. Where do you set the fistfight on page four? Did you have a really good gag for the Petersen Auto Museum? What is the feel of the place? How much road rage do your characters exhibit because – “wow! Shit just got real!” The point of this seemingly random mix of nostalgia and overarching weird serves a purpose…to help you think of the locations you choose for your stories become integrated into the story. That if you choose the Pyrenees for a fairytale update, suddenly one character speaks Spanish while her husband speaks French. That a cool city driven by a nearby volcano is a powder keg that will change the story while you aren’t looking. And you can find magic everywhere…   

Plato’s Stepchildren – why we sometimes hide in Metaphor

© 2020 G.N. Jacobs

Jeanine Cummins…what a mess! The politics of the American Dirt situation will largely take care of themselves elsewhere. There is one possible future remedy for other similar books (in this case the book is irrevocably the book, as it should be)…do the Science Fiction version. And that we can discuss here.

Let That be Your Last Battlefield – six weeks later, a possible respite from the hate mail….

As much as we would like to hear about every author fighting for their books in every circumstance, we do still need readers. The eternal balancing act between vision and the audience. In that regard, Science Fiction as a genre has a long history of acting like the safety valve for all kinds of stories Larger Society deems too radioactive. And the next book with lofty intentions like this could come out as SF and likely escape notice.

Far Beyond the Stars – Sorry, Benny, the issue isn’t in the rearview, yet…

Why? First off, there’s all kinds of real bias against the genre. To my limited knowledge awaiting final video proof, Oprah has never in her thirty years as Queen of TV used her book club platform to promote a real Science Fiction property that wasn’t made huge elsewhere. Oprah doesn’t have to promote anything she doesn’t like and in a classic case of confirmation bias will design her show and empire initially to attract viewers with similar views as herself. And to do the best she can to broaden her appeal by sending out professionals to do market surveys.

If we assume that Oprah is the sort of woman put off by the rockets, lasers, ships, lightsabers and really huge explosions common to the genre, then it follows that enough of her viewers and readers react the same way. Certainly, we’re describing my mother who never really got my enjoyment of the genre. What this means is that people who do mainstream novels need Oprah for their anointing and the rest of us need to figure how to land about a tenth the money and wait years, if ever, for the movie deal.

There are other factors determining how Science Fiction became one of publishing’s more interesting redheaded stepchildren. Originally marketed to boys, the genre gave them what they wanted which was the ships, rockets, lasers, lightsabers and explosions. I’m hearing St. Paul in First Corinthians – “when I was a child I thought and spake as a child, but when I became a man, I put aside childish things” – in the oddity of how my favorite books that didn’t have spies in them were suddenly derided as being for children.

Here’s what we learned from classic Science Fiction while getting called geeks. Environmental concerns? Phillip Wylie pretty much played out every nightmare scenario in one book called The End of the Dream. Reactors boil rivers. Other rivers catch fire (I’m guessing inspired by that real-world time when the Ohio River ignited near Cleveland). Carbon monoxide inversion events pretty much wipe out Manhattan. You get the idea…a spectacular book, especially when your first experience of it is the book on tape.

And we pair this with Harry Harrison taking a break from The Stainless Steel Rat to give us Make Room! Make Room! later filmed as Soylent Green. The author may have underestimated the planetary ecosystem’s ability to house and feed humans asserting 300 million Americans would be too much, but the thesis of what happens when we reach that breaking point is still worth reading.

Or I could talk about learning about Libertarianism and some nonstandard family relationships from Robert Heinlein. Generally, you might read Frederick Pohl as a Liberal antidote to Heinlein. Certainly, you have to read The Cool War for Pohl’s two-point takedown of the CIA and as a thematic counterpoint to, say, Starship Troopers.

All of this was and is possible because when you deride the genre as juvenile or low culture, no one cares. A related phenomenon is that with all situations being deemed imaginary and relying heavily on metaphor instead of coming out and directly stating a controversial opinion the easily offended can be brushed off saying – “relax, it’s just Science Fiction.”

Before going into how this would play out for the imaginary SF version of American Dirt, let’s discuss how three episodes of Star Trek handled the depiction of racism (diagonally related to the current issues). Some used metaphor. Others went straight at it to varying degrees of success getting in under the radar.

We start with the TOS episode “Plato’s Stepchildren.” One of the photos for this post shows why the episode was and is important. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) kissed Kirk (William Shatner) onscreen at the end of 1968. Predictably directly addressing the issue with what is now deemed the second ever interracial kiss on English speaking TV (a BBC show asserts having done it six months earlier) caused a lot of people to lose their shit.

The hate mail flowed in from the South. The supporting mail from everywhere else also landed heavy. Nichelle Nichols has since then continuously retold her favorite piece of hate mail from that time. A gent from the South wrote in leading with I don’t approve, but then finishing with, if I may paraphrase, “but, Uhura’s hot!” John Sayles expressed a similar amusement in his movie Lone Star – “what a wonderful thing it is that it sometimes takes one prejudice to combat another.”

Exactly six weeks later in the dreaded and much derided TOS Third Season (fans love to bash the season about like we also like bashing Star Wars: Phantom Menace, tips for fitting in FYI), we got a more metaphorical approach to – “Hey, racism is bad and stupid to boot.” The TOS episode “Let That be Your Last Battlefield.” Again, the photo says everything.

No one then or now was ever fooled that The Five-Year Mission had suddenly changed tack. People are smarter than we look. The beauty of an episode about two guys who are both black and white at the same time fighting to the death because they have nothing else left is all metaphor. Heavy reliance on metaphor is a hallmark of Science Fiction and if that same southern gent was as equally pissed off by the follow up, History doesn’t record him writing a second hate letter. I like to think that he told himself that the second anti-racism episode in six weeks was all imaginary and he would wake up from the dream in due course.

Lastly, we come to my favorite regular hour of Star Trek, a DS-9 episode “Far Beyond the Stars.” Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) is whisked away by his later revealed cousins and other relatives among the Bajoran Wormhole People, aka the Prophets, to 1950’s New York. He takes the place of Benny, a science fiction writer at a pulp magazine tasked with writing the story of the space station.

When Benny gets his ass beat by two cops played by the actors normally playing the series villains, we learn that in 1999 the franchise clearly believes that the coast is clear. We don’t have to use metaphor to discuss racism instead just choosing to tell a story about the issue. Times had changed so it seemed.

As for how writing an SF novel helps the next American Dirt. First off, the author doesn’t have to worry about the main part of the backlash that might leave only Oprah standing if it breaks gloomy. Once it becomes SF, the story ceases to be about Hispanics and Anglos and a border described as tragic all around.

Sure, the people who piously police our books saying variations of – “this protagonist doesn’t reflect any of my immigrant relatives.” – or – “this author purports to want to humanize us, but relies on every stereotype about Hispanics that we’re tired of.” – are going to know immediately what Ms. Cummins is trying to say. But, the reply will always be – “yes, but replacing Hispanics with ________s allows the author the wiggle room to get X, Y and Z wrong about everything because the story is now about how two fictional societies with similar economic and cultural disparities interact across the short interstellar distances between the planets.”

The shift into SF also allows the protagonist to remain as is. According to the liner notes (I’ll get back to you when I read the book, possibly when the dust settles), the woman owns a record store and comes from a socioeconomic class that wouldn’t normally go across the border. She makes the mistake of flirting with the wrong cartel drug lord while her husband writes unflattering journalism about him, which results in a mass family wipe out at a quinceañera. I recognized this character archetype immediately.

This woman shares thematic space with every Disney princess that must be driven into the forest and seek protection from the Dwarves or be raised in secret by the Fairies to protect her from Maleficient. Or you could bring up Mark Twain’s Prince and the Pauper where a fictional Edward VI switches places with a pauper lookalike, losing status to regain it and become a better king. And I’ll give you a coin toss between the Biblical Book of Job or Alexandre Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo as the last example of the protagonist that starts out comfortable and loses everything in order to gain more at the end of the story.

It becomes obvious that the detractors may be right according to one point of view, a woman that has more in common with Snow White really won’t reflect their cousins. By design. However, Ms. Cummins isn’t just writing to reveal the immigration situation from a point of view of things as they are.

She’s also trying to get people that look a whole lot like me to ease up and be nicer because normal people don’t cross dangerous borders on the merest of whims. Therefore, it makes sense to subconsciously tap into a more fairytale character archetype of the person whom we don’t expect to cross the border. Why? Because the thousand-year-old storytelling tradition I saw immediately because I do know how to read has always worked in the past.

In hindsight, this is where the imaginary SF version helps out. When the story ceases to be about Hispanics and Anglos, the detractors might just go with it because the fairytale princess escaping Planet Y for greener and safer pastures on Planet X makes for a potentially great story (It still could suck, we’ll see). Could Ms. Cummins have shifted gears learning from past blowups, though? Hard to say.

I’ve pretty much buried the lead here because there are a few skills that Ms. Cummins hasn’t had to practice. Worldbuilding, for instance. The two planets or nearby star systems with such disparate economics have to be thought out, named and put onto the page in order to disguise and prevent offense. Let’s see that means Planet________ has just recovered from Social Ill_______ and her people jealously eye the perceived wealth of nearby Planet_________.

For your information, the underlines are more about a failure of imagination than sensitivity, the names initially proposed read like Roald Dahl taking someone’s piss on a hangover day. If I had to actually write it, I’d come up with something…I always do. My point, I do worldbuilding every day and I still might draw blanks at first. What could Ms. Cummins do, coming new to the genre? Basically, you write like you read in so many ways.

There you have it, how it might’ve worked if American Dirt had been reworked as Science Fiction somewhere in the middle of the process. Less sales. No Oprah, unless I’m wrong. No presold film deal. And no one cares, unless Ms. Cummins really trips over her shoelaces trying SF when it doesn’t come naturally to her. All for a story that slips under the radar to influence people in unexpected ways, which sometimes just has to do.

As for what good SF races sound like, especially Roald Dahl at the top of his game…VERMICIOUS KNIDS! Enjoy that mic drop and have a good evening.

A familiar scene leading to…

© 2020 G.N. Jacobs

“No idea completely survives first contact with the page.”

…this and away we go!

With the usual paraphrase apologies to Helmut von Moltke the Elder, ideas seem sometimes a slippery as the war plans discussed by the Prussian Field Marshal. I’ll give a few examples.

There I am in my favorite comic book store on a Sunday when my friend behind the counter isn’t still in shock over a destroyed engine (long story). For this day’s session, the conversation turns to all things Star Wars. My friend expresses his ticked off that many customers seem to think he should be first in line for Episode 9 and then the related tangents spiral outwards…

Somewhere in the discussion of many related things in Star Wars-Land the destruction of, count ‘em, two Death Stars before the dreaded Galactic Empire even gets to strut around intimidating poor hapless planets into accepting an entirely extractive governing arrangement is asserted to represent total financial disaster. Segments of this nerd fight can include death claims on the part of the families of technicians housed on the Death Star. Mike Myers generally covered this in outtakes from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery – “Where’s Smitty? Ever since he took that new job at Dr. Evil’s secret base, we haven’t seen him. Oh, really, the base was just reported destroyed? That’s so sad! Let’s raise one for Smitty!”

This version of the discussion gets quite involved where my friend reaches into parts of the Internet I hadn’t even thought to go. An economics blog where there lies an estimate of just the steel cost pegged at about thirteen times the current GDP of the whole planet…just the steel. Comment included the cost of cleaning up both Yavin 4 and Endor would represent costs likely to bankrupt even the EPA’s Superfund program…a few times over, I think.

It was a true conversation in the sense that the debris field segment was sparked by me saying that my since abandoned fan fiction (I knew I needed to wait out Episode 9 before continuing) involved Luke taking Rey into the Yavin 4 debris field to go on scavenger hunt for a hurting kyber crystal in need of a Jedi willing to take in what is essentially a stray shelter cat. I’m envisioning the field as the SF equivalent of the Somme Battlefield that the French Government just evacuated instead of sending in EOD.

Razor sharp fragments moving at random orbital velocities. Residual radiation from destroyed reactor piles. Jedi are supposed to undergo graduation trials; seems to me that giving your padawan a spacesuit and throwing them out the airlock in order to find a kyber crystal crying out in the Force for a warm home and saucer of milk counts…in spades. My friend reminded me that dangerous to clean up is also expensive.

There was more to the discussion, of course. The part where it almost becomes a geek fight – “would the Empire actually pay claims as an evil polity run by Sith?” The comic book store lawyering on both sides is highly entertaining and shouldn’t be missed, but I digress…

All of this mess swirls around in my head to give me my first really weird idea of the week…playfully take the piss out of the franchise by writing a script that starts with the destruction of the trademark-safe version of the Death Star. Parodies of Star Wars still play out like the original and I need a McGuffin. Tapping finger to head results in – “I got it! The hero needs to find the galactic bitcoin database that holds enough stored digital currency that will convert into the local denomination that will save the galaxy from bankruptcy!”

So far so good, quest McGuffin checked off the to do list. I start screwing around with the world building allowing me to acknowledge that few concepts happen whole cloth all at once. I thought the script would fit in well with other SF projects of mine that have a set pseudo-physics to them where it’s convenient to have humans and other sentient people spread out through several galaxies where a trick of hyperspace makes it easier to make a phone call between galaxies than to go there. It increases the threat of financial ruin, because neighboring galaxies might loan the Empire money by intergalactic wire transfer and like when the Psychlo home planet went bye-bye these loans are now – GASP! – unsecured.

Another preexisting idea, an insurance adjuster in space with a ship starting out on a planet of windswept grassy plains. Basically, Han Solo with the job of reviewing interstellar disasters and wrecks to determine how much the insurance company will pay out, part investigator and part actuary. And now we get to the first slippery idea of which there will be more as the process goes further.

Does an epic about finding the magic galactic bitcoin drive actually need an insurance adjuster as the hero? Yes, it’s a job that sort of intersects with the superficially modern concerns about international finance and the hell it must be to lose the drive with your bitcoin keys. But the story begins after the trademark-safe Death Star goes – BLAMMO!

The vile but still looks good in the union-mandated postage stamp dress Galactic Empress has already been told by her advisors, toadies and other yes-beings that pretty much all of the local insurance carriers are declaring bankruptcy and getting out of Dodge on intergalactic sleeper ships to avoid paying claims. This hypothetical hero’s work as insurance adjuster is done before the lights fade on the title scroll. I’m not saying I can’t make it work, but suddenly maybe I need a slightly different job for Han Solo…

Enter the Interstellar Business Scout. If business can be conducted at interstellar and intergalactic distances using the in-story equivalent of a long-distance phone call, someone has to go check out the opportunity first hand and report back. For example, are there really functioning spice mines on Kessel? Has anyone audited the books for said same spice mine? The skills that answer these questions are also the skills that understand how the magic bitcoin box interacts with the depleted currencies of the suddenly impoverished Imperial Galaxy. Give him/her a ship and little bit of unconventional swagger to fit with a character archetype that still has to be in the movie and I have my hero…I think.

The magic bitcoin box, second cousin to the codebreaker box from Sneakers, also tweaks the world building. In order to assume an archive of easily convertible digital currency, I chose to assume a precursor civilization that collected cash and helped create the intergalactic banking system. And suddenly when I’m ready to write the title scroll (the only thing on paper so far), I get to drop in a satirical homage to the blue words that appear before Star Wars – THIRD GALAXY TO THE LEFT. WHENEVER. – instead of – A GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY AND A LONG, LONG TIME AGO.

Thinking about magic bitcoin boxes leads to this slight change in thinking, at least some of the assets that will right the ship in the Imperial Galaxy have to be physical. People are always going to be people and value physical assets. It runs contrary to my experience that a digital currency can be completely digital (why I refuse to invest in bitcoin). We might not still peg the Dollar to the gold held at Fort Knox and the New York Federal Reserve Bank, but they are still assets to borrow against. This leads to some of the data on the bitcoin box leading to untapped reserves of many different strategic minerals: lost gold mines, platinum ingots buried under the ruined structures of Coruscant…these threads are movies in of themselves.

To recap, I slightly changed my hero and my world building to fit the narrative that slowly forms in my head as I keep thinking about the Interstellar Business Scout that goes looking for a magic box with which to restore financial stability to support the fragile peace brought by the Restored Republic. Will it change further? Should I find some other character to be the insurance adjuster (Princess Leia?)?

I’m betting it will, especially since I buried a huge lead…I really want to resurrect a fan fiction script I wrote for The Return of the Jedi. But does a movie that I absolutely know trades on the dangerous treasure hunt motifs of say The Deep or Treasure Island even belong in the same neighborhood as Return of the Jedi? We shall see when I find time to write the pig.

Anyway, the point of this post is to get you to embrace the fact that ideas are slippery where pulling one thread changes X and the other thread has far reaching consequences requiring changing that really important scene in the First Act. And on and on…

I’ll close with the postscript that I’m fully away that making the movie about intergalactic finance dangerously flirts with this truth I learned from Steve Martin’s movie Bowfinger – “Write what you know…unless it’s about accounting, which is boring.” Trick of the trade Number Five, the magic bitcoin box handles all of the boring financial stuff while the characters run around the galaxy shooting trademark-safe Imperial Stormtroopers. With that, the post is over…go home!

© 2020 G.N. Jacobs

I get strange ideas. All fifty of you wonderful readers have already grokked this truth. This next one was worth a few giggles – embedding journalists or scribes into dungeoneering parties. And now I wait for the shoe to drop when you figure out that I mean in-game.

At the meta/player level everybody with an average command of English boasts and posts about that time with the drunken ogre rampaging just down the street from a peaceful night of drinking at the Golden Harlot. Okay, there aren’t any peaceful nights drinking at any SF, Fantasy, Crime, Western or Military genre bars, especially one named the Golden Harlot, if the GM just wanted the Mysterious Stranger to launch the mission the players will start the fight themselves about half the time. But I digress.

Anyway, I’ve yet to wander by a game where a character slew monsters with the intent of informing the home audience about the grisly death of the latest batch of orcs. Lazy? Failure of imagination? Too much hassle? It is, of course, up to individual GMs if they want to tolerate the practice and a guy who spends more time whining about not being in a game than playing shouldn’t throw this rock.

How would embedded scribes work in a game? First, do the scribes have to announce themselves like modern war correspondents? We’ve all seen the feeds from the front where the reporter has a vest on and helmet brightly marked with PRESS and an absolute prohibition on weapons due to the other side’s soldiers likely to mistake a pistol for an officer, aka sniper bait. My understanding, journalists are officially protected but ask the average medic how many times they get shot at.

There is one class of journalist that isn’t subject to these rules, combat correspondents. These guys are soldiers with the extra training to write for Stars and Stripes or Army Times and they take their gear along with the lightest rifle in the inventory into the fray. Rent Full Metal Jacket; try not to be offended by the nasty comments about Ann-Margaret at the assignment meeting and enjoy.

In my mind’s eye when I started going off on embedded scribes as part of the dungeoneering team, the combat correspondent model made more sense. Adventuring parties are small, too small to give space in that three-meter stone hallway (based on most GMs traditional use of four squares to the inch graph paper and an arbitrary scale of ¼ inch = 10ft) to some useless git hanging back in the hallway until the clanking and dust settle. Pretty much hack now, scribble later.

The combat correspondents in the group don’t have to announce themselves with any obvious markings on the clothes. It helps to have the extra sword, spell or healing blessings in the party. And a properly written account as it happens can help settle any street cred issues when the party is back at the Golden Harlot waiting for either the next Mysterious Stranger or rival adventure party with which to rumble. And title of this post aside, perhaps it doesn’t actually say SCRIBE on the vest.

Which is a good moment for a digression about the title. A good friend whose mind, experiences and general zaniness I routinely plumb for all kinds of reasons teaches school. He tells me a story that at a previous campus where shit got real; he gets pissed off at the drug dealing across the street and the local cops can’t or won’t do anything soon enough to make a difference. So, he calls another friend I haven’t met…a Federal Agent.

The story as originally told included a raid with my friend going along in a borrowed vest as the last guy through the door. Most raids have the minimally happy ending of drug merchants in cuffs. One of the dealers mouthed off to my friend for some reason. The reply – “you see this on my chest, says POLICE? Well, it should really say TEACHER like on that show where the guy has his vest saying WRITER (see photo), because I’m a teacher across the street and if you guys keep selling, we’re gonna keep raiding.” The amended story said he actually bought the TEACHER vest, because it was that kind of school.

What gaming mayhem comes of having a character in the party writing for the Minas Tirith Herald or my favorite imaginary fantasy setting news outlet, The Obsidian City Defender? Like most concepts the GM may employ, the answer depends on the curious interplay of the player, character and the in-game reason for why the home audience needs to be informed about the doings of adventure parties.

Does the fighter-scribe character come to the party with an agenda?

In Lawrence of Arabia, for instance, an American reporter somewhat based on the real journalist Lowell Thomas is asked by the Hashemite prince played by Alec Guinness why he is so interested in Colonel Lawrence. The answer – “Your Highness, some of us in America are concerned about our standing in the world and that in order for us to take our place we’ll need to enter the war. Part of that involves finding stories that show the excitement of war. And with things on the Western Front bring what they are, here I am.” The reply – “Then Lawrence is your man.”

What sort of agendas might the wizard-scribe bring to clearing out dungeons? Many campaigns are exactly like the fantasy novels that spawned them. A McGuffin features prominently. Is the home audience desperately in need of heroes to retrieve/destroy the Pen of Great Peril in order to secure the city until the next great McGuffin rears up to threaten the peace of the community?

Is the scribe coming to the adventure with the subversive agenda of ratting out the worst practices of adventure parties? Shine a light on the strangeness that in most fantasy settings the cash poor medieval society keeps itself afloat by sending out parties of independent contractors on a slay and keep the treasure basis? Dead monsters mean fewer muggings of farmers just minding their own business and the adventurers getting to keep the lion’s share of the stray treasure hordes helps/distorts the local economy because adventurers buy mead at the Golden Harlot. Someone with an agenda might want to become the local version of Hunter S. Thompson (famous for creating an interesting verb, monstering…a coincidence?) to tell all as it happened.

Depending on how much thought the GM gives to the campaign there are endless answers to why one or more characters has the side gig of explaining the doings of the adventure party. Is the home audience simply bored with the gladiators in the arena and eagerly awaiting the next town crier to speak the report of how the plucky band of brothers cleared out the Castle of Cringeful Curmudgeons?

That last scenario suggests that the party’s embedded scribe would write in the style of a sportswriter. Lots of stats. Forty orcs slain. Two hundred copper pieces lawfully appropriated on a Killers Keepers basis. Heads that fly across the room in slow motion. The emotional toll upon such stalwart heroes. The GM that adds this element can go anywhere, especially in a bread and circuses kind of society. Certainly, HBO’s show Rome taught me, control the criers control the mob, but I digress…

I suppose the last question the GM should answer is one scribe per party or everybody writes for a different outlet? News competition being what it is, it seems to me that if everybody had their deadlines for The Mirkwood Daily, or The Lonely Mountain Gazette the GM just turned the game into a Paranoia session…where characters cheerfully shoot each other in the back.

Anyway, I’m running out of give a damn about embedded scribes in adventure parties. It was funny for a minute and a half. Anyway, enjoy the nutty and do what your campaigns need.

© 2020 G.N. Jacobs

Jingle Bells! Batman smells! Robin laid an egg! And Joker got away!

Of course, these joke lyrics come to mind the minute one of the DJs on KUSC chose to tell me about the fuzzy history of the Jingle Bells Christmas carol, while also casually dropping in that the song is The Joker’s favorite holiday tune. We’ll leave all commentary about the better than even chance I sang the joke lyrics in the car, at least a half octave flat (I only believe I can write the music, Ducky) for our sister column, Composer’s Counterpoint…or never.

But, it is a good segue for discussing the literary trope of the one villain that consistently gets away. Four examples immediately spring to mind: Joker, Wo Fat (original), Professor Moriarty and Murdock. There are others I haven’t used my library card on…yet. In the most reductionist sense possible, where tropes, clichés and metaphor live they’re perhaps the same villain…until they’re not.

Joker gets away. The unnamed murder clown bedeviling Batman’s easy path through Gotham’s underbelly of crime either gets away or figures out how porous the security arrangements at Arkham Asylum really are. A pop stand with paper thin walls that can’t seem to hold the top five members of Batman’s Rogues Gallery, so I suppose I could do this post asserting Riddler Got Away, but for the song tie in.

One of these days, I’m really going to have to pitch this geek fight at my comic book store – “so if Arkham Asylum can’t actually hold whatever villain the current writer chooses to have break out and they keep appropriating to fill in all the tunnels, dimensional cracks and other means of physical egress that don’t involve scary good lawyering, why is the facility still open?” A good question that I’m sure has already been asked but not by me. Rooted in a couple real world examples.

Alcatraz Federal Prison closed after the escape attempt that Clint Eastwood dramatized for the movie. The crumbly concrete around the vents popped open on the way to the roof were deemed too expensive to fix in an old structure exposed to sea air. So most of the inmates went to Fort Leavenworth.

The Nazis pressed a historic schlöss (castle), Colditz Castle, into service as a POW camp. Enough prisoners took their oath to attempt escape as a means of tying down as many soldiers as possible behind the lines guarding prisoners that they cut through serious rock trying to get out. The tunnels still exist despite attempts to fill them in that you can see them on the tour (one of many bucket list items, I guess).

Anyway, Joker gets away. Joker escapes. In my own sporadic fan fiction meanderings with the Batman franchise, I stopped using the Joker as the main villain. Not because I haven’t enjoyed all the actor portrayals of the murder clown over the years, but everybody else reaches for the Joker without trying to come up with something one of the other villains could and should pull off.

My most recent abandoned effort, I had Harley Quinn attempt to dig Joker out of Arkham. They romance in his cot and Joker, like Colonel Hogan, stays inside because he can bust out anytime he likes, but he hasn’t a good plan to screw with Batman and there’s this other fella making trouble. Considering that this story suggests that Batman and Catwoman are about to replay Rear Window, I asked experts for someone who wasn’t Joker, Riddler, Penguin or Mr. Freeze. Answer: Film Phreak.

Joker at a deep psychological level is a little different than the other Always Gets Away villains in this post. Smarter people than me go on and on endlessly that the murder clown represents chaos and a dark reflection of Batman’s own tragic backstory. The clown doesn’t seem to do anything but for to fuck with the Bat. All kinds of dark nasty storytelling ensues, yet when Professor Wurtham lied about comic books damaging kids, he chose to focus on the assumption of Batman buggering Robin to the exclusion of the representation of apparently motiveless evil represented by the Joker. But, I digress.

Anyway, the other villains in this discussion are a little more similar to each other at the level of analysis. They have understandable motives. Making money. Advancing Red China’s cause. Making money killing people. Perhaps Murdock from the reboot version of MacGyver comes the closest to The Joker’s sense of pure evil.

Mac attempts to pose as Murdock with the assassin’s help (cooperation with the court) and blows a meeting with prospective clients – “MacGyver, my job requires a personality that makes normal people’s skin crawl. When you come off as this normal, those nice people needing my help instinctively know something is wrong.” Mac among his other talents (but no guns) is a good actor who takes direction well. The next meeting goes well…

In a general sense, the Always Gets Away villain serves as a device to provide the hero with a sense of still being mortal. Original Wo Fat appears in the pilot episode of Hawaii 5-0 (aired in the middle of the first season) and appears about twice a season until the very last episode. Danno and McGarrett foil the plot, but Wo Fat either hides behind diplomatic immunity or gets on a plane to China just before the arrest can be made. Considering that the team always got everyone else starting with the poetry spouting wife killer in the first episode, you get the sense of the slave in the Roman triumph posted at the honoree’s ear – “remember, thou art mortal.”

James Patrick Moriarty exists as a similar archetype. Sherlock Holmes is too smart for everyone else (paging Irene Adler). So you need someone that can think his way to a draw with the World’s Greatest Consulting Detective.

The most recent film version of this conflict depicted this as a mutual litany of next steps. First, Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) mentally recites his plan. Moriarty (Brendan Gleeson) mentally recites his plan that takes into account Holmes’ plan as if telepathically clueing into the shared ether. They fight and…

…both fall over Reichenbach Falls. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle intended this moment to end the series. But, he caved to fans and publishers wanting more, only to have footmen and cabbies complain about Holmes “not being the same since Reichenbach Falls.” Ah, fans never change…it might blow up the universe if they made sense.

Bringing the thought back around to the murder clown, this sense of the equal and opposite that can’t survive without the other becomes far more pronounced. Joker pulls off some especially dark deeds depending on how constrained the writer feels by the more relevant of the, presently defunct, Comics Code, movie rating or TV rating systems. In The Killing Joke, Batman tells Joker – “Joker, if we keep this up one of us will die.”

Will the trope survive except when depicting past eras on the page? All of these villains who keep coming back whether presumed immortal because of the vat of toxic goo, or simply depicted as the equal and opposite to the hero are creations from before the Internet. The Joker gets away waiting for his next vicious inspiration, but he needs to hole up somewhere.

In Gotham set between 1940 and 1990, Joker rents a new apartment/lair and starts drawing on the walls in crayon. Batman and any minions have to call people like every known landlord in the city asking about either gents with evil laughs and clown makeup white skin or people who smell of too much theatrical face paint hoping to look normal. Holmes’ London didn’t even have phones and the consulting detective never had enough Baker Street Irregulars to waste on trying to find the villain before he surfaces for the next plan.

Meanwhile, based on the theory that we use the Internet the same way no matter what we call each ourselves, could a villain get away more than a few times? I have friends telling me they can even break Wit Sec analyzing the data correctly. Google knows everything…

Realistically, the trope will survive. Writers can make most things possible with our usual Step, Kick and Shuffle toe dance. The creativity of the attempt becomes the thing. Enjoy your returning villains…

© 2020 G.N. Jacobs

Once upon a time (about a week from this writing), I kept busy with a crossword puzzle (see post, eventually). At some other point, I’ll go into why crossword puzzles have been so good as distraction recently, where doing several fistfuls at the same time eats up two things the scream building inside and a lot of my blog related writing time. I trust you noticed the recent lack of give a damn on this blog?

Anyway, one puzzle stood out among all the others. And I turn it into a writing prompt to force myself to write prose on a day when holidays and the thing I’m dancing around not actually relating to you all conspired to make my chapter prose have as little give a damn as my blog posts. I see a clue that lands on Wolf in the vertical and dressmaker Vera Wang’s surname across the horizontal.

How do you put wolves and a dressmaker/designer with a niche doing wedding dresses in the same story? I’m sure those of you paying attention already have my answer…

A young dressmaker lets a mysterious gentleman with an exacting order for a surprise wedding dress get close enough for a kiss. Waking up afterwards brings the revelation of her status as Queen of the Werewolves with responsibilities and

And if I toss this setup into the Saga column, I just ended the post. I got an idea. I acted on it. And I told you where I got it so you get to replicate my nuttiness. Let’s get lunch.

But, I have other columns. Counterpoint for one, which exists for two reasons. The much delayed opera and that I sometimes hear theme music when I meet a new character. Frantic snippets of instrumentation that hide once I get a few sentences down on paper. Sometimes, it comes back a bar at a time…

Truthfully, the Power of Suggestion can sometimes guide my hearing the appropriate theme music. In this case, the proposed mugging of the real life wedding dress lady’s reputation by asserting she’s really a Werewolf Queen…in a society just stupid enough for one person to show up at her door with silver bullets. Obviously, a name change must happen sooner than later.

Of course, if Ms. Wang had honked me off in some way, I could keep her name in the text. Make use of the legal principle of ridiculousness as a partial work around for defamation. To wit, Werewolf Queens are reasonably not thought to exist and thus reasonable people wouldn’t believe that Vera Wang, appearing in an obviously fictional novel about werewolves, is one and thus she wouldn’t suffer damage. Just ask the proprietors of the D.C. area pizzeria named by Alex Jones how they like that strategy?

Anyway, the above paragraph comes to me by way of John Oliver and Last Week Tonight’s recent emergence from the gag order levied by a SLAPP-suit loving West Virginia coal baron. Mr. Oliver ended his season with an over the top musical number calling said douchebag all kinds of nasty otherwise actionable things. Ah, contempt and rage as a driver of culture. As for Ms. Wang, I’m not even married to bitch her out over an expensive wedding dress that I’m traditionally not on the hook for, anyway.

But, suddenly thinking about crazy musical numbers opens a switch in my head…my mostly dormant orchestration/arranging switch.

Her Hairy Majesty wakes up in her shop to see a mess. Chicken blood. Feathers everywhere. Hunks of stray cat due to her gentleman caller goofing and underestimating her hunger. Every dress on the floor except the one she thought she did for the man’s offscreen fiancé has been ripped in the struggle. He tells her she’ll live longer running away with him to Vegas…

I don’t know. Start off slow with a soft but insistent bell, maybe a D? Wait six bars, a harmonica builds the progression as she follows the line of gore to the carefully protected dress behind the point of sale station.

Will I actually do the above? It was only a few bars misheard after goofing on the necessity to avoid pissing off people who haven’t done anything to me and thinking in probably the single most conventional orchestration method. More importantly, I haven’t gone past this scene on the page. There will be other more discordant notes as we go along.

Anyway, I’ve adroitly turned a thinly disguised brag post about getting an idea that you didn’t into a sort of article about dramatic orchestration. Enjoy the nutty and I’ll be back when I actually know what the Werewolf Queen’s actual theme music is…

© 2020 G.N. Jacobs

In the spirit of Nelson Algren’s Three Rules for Life from A Walk on the Wild Side – Never play cards with a man named Doc – Never eat at a place called Mom’s – Never sleep with a woman whose troubles seem greater than your own – we sometimes expand the list to include fonts of wisdom like, never shoot pool at a place called Pop’s. And my personal favorite, never eat anything bigger than your head. Sounds like good advice…until you set out to do the musical equivalent.

My proposed opera series Tales of the Angel Association stalled about ten seconds after I changed my mind about not doing it. And the stall has little to do with the looming terror of knowing, except for free-styling on the mouth harp, that my last intelligible notes played from a score came from the woodwind section in sixth grade. Before I get there I have a huge writing problem…all kinds of epically large pieces written for other media that might not condense into an opera, movie, radio drama or book. A large steak, indeed.

The earliest pieces come from a novel that I leave unfinished because the circumstances of inspiration have changed. I changed comic book stores (the setting). And a certain woman, the direct sue me inspiration for a secondary villainess filling pretty much the same niche as Milady De Winter (go figure), disappeared back into the ether. But, there is a key element that I didn’t even know I was leading up to when I stopped the book. It must remain.

Negatively inspired by Mark Millar’s Wanted, I set out to show that if superheroes are possible that there will always be superheroes even after the villains kill them all off. Waiting in secret, the spandex gene or curiously radioactive meteor will always strike Earth at fairly regular intervals, shorter than the time between planet-killer asteroids and much longer than the time between dentist visits. The villains can’t murder in their cribs all of the people who could become spandex heroes…can they?

I envisioned a regular guy with more than a little science and chemistry working at a thinly disguised version of my then current comic book store. While beset by the unwanted attentions of a female stalker (at the time non-fiction) who also happens to be the public face hatchet of the secret cabal of spandex villains that had long since killed off or driven into hiding all the spandex heroes in the world, the comic book store guy falls for a young lady that almost wanders into the store by mistake.

The hatchet lady for the Legion of Chaos attempts to kill her rival and a couple other women investigating a dead writer who happened to be a good friend of the comic book guy. The comic book guy finds the techno-magical solutions to save these ladies while they linger near death giving them superpowers in the process. This sparks a covert war between the comic book store superheroes and the villain bosses because there just aren’t any superheroes anymore, Ducky.

And with all good literary universes with too many characters many threads converge into one. The trio of fem-zombie heroines track the villains to a graveyard in Ohio or some such place where the official grave of a former spandex heroine awaits her reincarnation to come and take the spear. But, the villains know about the “wait twenty years and the next version will come” limitation on this particular hero and have set an ambush that caught the next three reincarnations.

But, the fem-zombie trio, the fourth reincarnation that needs the spear, her college roommate, the return of a character that just barely passes the Six Points of Dissimilarity standard concerning the Superman archetype and the actions of two spandex femmes that work to destroy the Legion of Chaos from within all mix it up among the gravestones. Enough force is brought to bear that the ten villain Legion (of which only two villains have been written) is driven from their perch astride ten-percent off the top of the whole world’s economy, global scale protection payments, only to return next week with a new plot on this same Bat-channel at this very Bat-time.

So that is one thread where this big ass fight in a forlorn cemetery among the barn owls and crickets that has to stay in the opera or at least be sung about as backstory in all kinds of arias and duets.

Next, we get to the other threads to the same hyper-dramatic story of a team of heroes that call Los Angeles home (so sick of how Marvel depicted Los Angeles). Working concurrently with the thread leading to the Excalibur moment among the dead, I also worked on a lighter moment where guided by information on Meetup the new set of heroes that should’ve been wiped out by the Legion including survivors of the graveyard rumble meet about a year later to pool resources and make a team.

This part of the overall mythos exists as an excuse to put six (later seven) spandex people into the same living room to tell their origin stories, drink punch and tap hands to form the Angel Association (they are more than one and they live in the City of Angels, you can only reinvent the wheel a few times per franchise). About four of the original characters exist on paper and for one character at least one attempt to put this same story into a screenplay.

But, there is something missing…a narrator or Doctor Watson. I envision a teenager the single contrast to everybody else either being middle twenties or ageless and just looks that young. Again because most times dealing with 80 years each of mythology and the Big Two comics publishers and you don’t reinvent the spandex wheel, she merges with another teenaged personality to just barely be different from Iron Man.

This character also serves to save the Angel Association from a previous mistake making certain characters be too close to real life. I needed a lawyer protecting the interests of the team and its members and the implosion of another novel (long story, already said too much) deprived the team of its first attorney. So the young lady in the armor-symbiote suit just needs a father who can be the lawyer and I absolutely need to go as far and as public domain as possible from the original mouthpiece as possible.

Marcus Tullius Cicero the Elder (of the Latin placeholder text among other contributions to civilization) is a good way to go, the real guy is safely dead over two thousand years. And, yes, this is the beauty of this kind of writing, explaining how he’s still alive to be a lawyer with a big house in Beverly Hills is sort of my metier – “Rumors of my gruesome assassination at the hands of Marc Antony are greatly exaggerated.”

Adding the daughter of Cicero to all of these extant pieces, the abandoned novel (which might’ve been too closely based on real people, I got lucky), the original stories written in third person and the daughter’s narration in first person, makes for an unwieldy set of books. At least, the latest version of the book has an easy out for the otherwise ugly shift between third and first person – “This next part was told to me by…”

Meanwhile through all of this and my other projects, I’m going back and forth with other media for the Angel Association. Will it be a radio drama? A partial script exists using the story beats from the Metal Goddess-narrated version of these stories. Will it be an opera? Initially, I said no (see post). Now, I say yes.

Why? This huge over the top and completely operatic story with dark villains and many concepts sure to scare kids has over the eight or nine years of sporadic development become my narrative barnacle or white whale. I can’t walk away. I think Michael Corleone would get it – “Every time I try to get out, they pull me back in!”

And so here we are, I’m going to work on the basis for what will be more than one epic scale interlinked opera (at least doing the librettos, ask me in the Composer’s Counterpoint column about the actual music) for a long time. I have very nearly 200 pages of material from all these other sources causing the current problem of shaping the story. Opera aficionados have the same inability to sit still more than three hours at a time, as anyone else.

Clearly, I’ve cut off a steak currently bigger than my head. Now, once I procure the right steak knife and right oven with which to keep the plate warm, I can move slowly and eat well for a long time. More later. Get back to writing, you fellow definitions of personified laziness!