Some people (okay, ONE person) has requested that I talk about some of the inspirations behind The Witch Watch. (Which you can buy now by clicking on this very hyperlink!) Note that while I’m not going to be discussing the plot directly, this post will contain mild, indirect spoilers for the book. (Which you can buy etc etc.)
The book idea came while playing World of Warcraft. I had just rolled up an undead character. In the game, there’s an NPC welcoming you to the world as soon as you spawn for the first time. The idea is that this guy has just brought you back from the dead to help them with their struggle.
At the time I thought it would be amusing if someone in the player’s position was greeted with, “Welcome back, Bob! We’ve revived you so that… what? You’re not Bob? Oh. Sorry. How awkward. Not to hurt your feelings, but we have no idea who you are and nobody seems all that upset about you being dead. Again, sorry. Not to make this any worse for you, but I need to revive Bob, and right now I used up all the magic bringing you back. Would you mind… you know, going back to being dead?”
Originally the story was going to be silly along these lines, but as I fleshed out the tale it became less of a cartoon world and more of a legitimate setting.
As I devised the system of sorcery, I came to think of it as (of course) a programming language. Actually, more a system where you could apply localized diffs (changes) to the source code of the world around you. You couldn’t create energy or mass, but you could move them around a bit or alter the rules regarding where energy tends to flow.
I very quickly realized that this was going to turn into a plot-hole monstrosity. The more I explained it, the more readers would be able to say, “But then why can’t the heroes… X?” I could fix those, but only with more explanations. It might be a fun idea, but non-programmers would quickly become irritated with the long-winded asides on why you can’t do X or Y unless Z and not W. The further I got, the less I wanted to nail down anything that wasn’t 100% required for the book.
I have to say that even lighthearted historical fiction is much harder than sci-fi. History is complicated and it’s hard to know how all the little details worked. For example: How much do you tip someone in 1885? Now, often you can get away with “small tip” or “large tip”, but if you need a couple of characters to haggle then you need to have some frame of reference for coinage.
How did you get a carriage? There’s no phones, so you can’t call one. Does someone walk to where they are stored and rent one? Can you drive the carriage yourself and pay extra for an optional driver, or does the owner drive his own carriage? How many people “reasonably” fit inside of one? If you’re going to be somewhere for one day, does the carriage wait for you or do you send for another when it’s time to leave?
Sure, I can just make up stuff if I like. Most of us won’t notice, but for those that do, the scene will sound like the ravings of an idiot, like the CSI shows where people “hack IP addresses” by using visual basic, looking at 3d models on a big-screen television, and typing really fast. You can’t get everything right, but you do want to avoid sounding like you don’t care.
But this can be a real flow-killer to stop every other page and hammer away at Google for half an hour to figure out where this character should be keeping their money.
I’m not vowing off historical fiction, but I will say this was probably a challenging place to start.
Now I see why authors tend to get “stuck” in genres. Right now, I want to WRITE ALL THE THINGS. Zombie apocalypse. Grounded sci-fi. (Like 2001 Space Odyssey.) Space fantasy. (Like Star Wars.) Time travel. Superheros. But each genre requires a certain investment of time, and once you have a couple of books under your belt it’s probably a lot easier to stick with what you know.
In the process of researching the book I read about Oscar Wilde. I’d heard of him, but I’d never really read about him in detail. I was really taken with the idea of the dandies. We have such a monochrome view of how people acted back then. It would be like people 100 years from now assuming we all acted like Dan Rather or Johnny Carson. I was eager to get away from the, “My Fair Lady” stereotypes and toy with some of the other subcultures.
I’ve mentioned before that I tend to write in specific “voices” of people. Perhaps a result of being an auditory learner, perhaps as a personal peculiarity. I find that I most enjoy writing characters I can hear. Moxley began as Oscar Wilde, but I began hearing his dialog as acted by Stephen Fry.
In Free Radical, Nomen Nescio was far more fun than anyone else. In The Witch Watch, Moxley was my runaway character. Every time I got tired of the project I found myself wanting to give him another scene, just because he was so dang fun to write.
As I said, the tale started silly but grew into something a little more serious as it expanded. The character to suffer most from this was Gilbert. He began as “Steampunk Undead Leeroy Jenkins” and slowly became a deeper fellow. He began with the voice of Adam Baldwin:
But then when I started writing the flashbacks where he was alive, his voice slipped a bit. It’s easy to make an undead guy into a grunting berserker, but Living Gilbert needed more complicated motivations than, “punch problem in face”. So now I picture Living Gilbert as kind of Nathan Fillion, and Dead Gilbert as played by Adam Baldwin. Which don’t make no kinda sense to me.
I have no idea why both versions of Gilbert have Firefly actors in them. I’m pretty sure that’s just a coincidence. I wasn’t even watching the show at the time.
Alice began with the voice of Kiera Knightly as she appeared in the first PotC movie. Not so much in looks. (Although since I didn’t give Alice a lot in the way of description beyond what she wore, I suppose it doesn’t matter.)
Alice was originally intended to be a supporting character, but she grew in importance as the story drifted away from comedy. A lot of her “science” and backstory wound up unused. If I ever revisit this world, I imagine Alice would be the main character, and Gilbert a supporting one.
I originally had her being good with firearms, but she was already too awesome. A wizard AND an inventor AND attractive AND a natural leader AND a detective AND a gunslinger? Might as well name the book, “Mary Sue Saves The World”.
Young. Raised in an abusive environment. A magical prodigy. Spectacles. Naive, and a natural character to ask exposition-inducing questions. He was integral to the story, but I was really, really worried that he would be viewed as a Harry Potter ripoff. He wasn’t, and Potter wasn’t at all an inspiration for this character. However, the fact that the two characters had so many superficial points in common made me worry. (Johnny Depp had the same problem with people mistaking his Willy Wonka for a Micheal Jackson riff. It doesn’t matter what you intend. If other people see something else, then you messed up.) To avoid this, I made Simon as un-heroic as possible without making him unlikable.
This worked out. It kept him small. I already had two main characters, and sharing with a third would have been much harder.
There's a wonderful way to balance difficulty in RPGs, and designers try to prevent it. For some reason.
Two minutes of fun at the expense of a badly-run theme park.
Here is a 13 part series where I talk about programming games, programming languages, and programming problems.
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