Posts Tagged ‘weird west’

‘Dammit, I’m the sheriff! Bring me my coffee and donuts or more bodies are gonna drop!’

The high noon standoffs.The crazy magic carnival. The steampunk capitalists with their mechanical horses. As I’ve mentioned both here and elsewhere, I love the weird western card game Doomtown, and one of the things that makes me love it more is the fiction.

Combining Game and Story

AEG, the company who publish Doomtown, regularly post short fiction based on the game on their website. As a way of keeping players’ attention and building excitement around a game, I think it’s rather nifty. It builds up the plot, gives context to some of the cards, and makes me a little more interested in the characters of the game.

As integration of game and story goes, it’s no Device 6. But it’s really cool to see a company playing with what they can do in already playful mediums – short stories and games.

Moments Not Stories

These Doomtown pieces aren’t always what I’d describe as stories in their own right. They’re there to show a character, action or item in context. Something usually changes over the course of the story, but it often feels insubstantial.

For what it is, that works. It strings together the existing material of the game into a more coherent narrative full of character and tension, not just coloured pieces of card. I’d be surprised if the writers thought this was going to draw in new fans. It’s about maintaining existing interest, not bringing in more.

That said, I think weird west fans might enjoy the little snippets even without the bigger context of the game and the scenes written for the card sets. This is a world full of atmosphere and dark ideas, perfect for those who like to see spells and six-shooters in the same place.

Art as Marketing

This fits with a wider trend at the moment, where marketing cultural products has become less about badgering an audience into buying and more about giving something away to grab their interest. It’s common for serial fiction to include a cheap or free first e-book. Instead of badgering people into reading, the creators give them something and hope they like it to pay for more.

Speaking of which, my own collection of science fiction short stories, Lies We Will Tell Ourselves, is free on Amazon until Friday. So if Doomtown’s fiction doesn’t grab your interest, or you’ve read it all already, why not give that a go?

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Menelaeus’s fingers were sore from picking cotton, his back stinging from Mr Stenson’s lash. But he wasn’t going to let that stop him. With one hand he clutched his totem, intertwined figures of man and woman, diviner and spirit. With the other he picked up a handful of corn and scattered it across the skin of the drum.

“What do you see?” Octavia’s expression was serious, making her face appear even more wrinkled in the oil lamp’s light. He had learned much from her wisdom, her strength and her grace, but had still more to learn. With her man’s clothes and her fierce resolve, she embodied the world in between, the place where boundaries fell, where humans and spirits met. She was, in so many ways, the person he wanted to be.

Most of the kernels had bounced away to the floor. He looked carefully at the positions of those that remained, where they lay on a grid that served as both game board and tool of their art. The signs were all too familiar.

“This is Stenson.” Menelaeus pointed at a dark, twisted symbol marked by the corn. “Tomorrow we will suffer his wrath.” He pointed to the signs for suffering and for the field hands, both singled out by his spirit twin through the grain. Another symbol had been marked, one that filled him with even more dread. “There will be a death.”

“Again.” Octavia nodded. “Now tell me anything we can use to lessen the harm.”

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“Keep back, boy.” Blood dripped from Stenson’s whip. At his feet, Octavia Brown lay dead beside the cotton buds she had dropped in the dirt – ruined, as Stenson put it.

At least Octavia’s son Saul was not here. His fury would have got him killed. Thanks to Menelaeus and Octavia, the Brown children would not be orphans.

That knowledge did nothing to still Menelaeus’s pounding heart. He wanted to rip out Stenson’s throat with his bare hands. But Stenson and his men had guns, and Menelaeus would not be the only one they would punish.

So he stood still and silent. But now he knew – divining the future was not enough. He had to shape it.

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In the stillness of the night, Menelaeus stared at the totem, two carved beings intertwined. He could still feel his spirit twin, but without Octavia he was weaker, and he needed to be stronger than he ever had. He was just a man, and that was not enough.

“Stenson comin’ for you.” Saul stood beside Menelaeus’s bed. “Says you been stirrin’ trouble. You want I should kill him?”

His voice was ragged, torn up by hate.

“No.” Menelaeus rose from the bed. “Ain’t no-one else gonna fight for me. But I’m gonna need some things of your momma’s.”

#

“Who the hell d’you think you are, boy?” Stenson’s voice was even more menacing coming from the darkness behind the lanterns. His men cackled at his words. “Goddam faggot as well as a nigger now, huh?”

“My name is Meredith.” It felt natural, not just the name but the dress and the shawl. Becoming more than just the man he had been. Becoming both parts of the divination.

As the person who had been Menelaeus placed the corn kernels on the drum, she could feel the power flowing through her, her spirit twin stronger for sharing her change, for breaking a line that defined and divided him.

“Always knew you were an uppity nigger.” Stenson’s gun clicked. “Now we gonna end that.”

“No.” Meredith slid a kernel across the drum skin, from the sign for the overseer to that for death.

A shot rang out.

“Oh shit!” A different voice this time. White, male, scared.

“What the hell you done, Hank?” The lights shifted, illuminating Stenson’s body and casting Meredith back into shadow.

“I don’t know,” the man whimpered. “It just gone off in my hand. I don’t…”

As fear turned to panic and accusation, Meredith picked up her drum. The plantation men would be busy for a good long while.

As she walked away into the night she touched the totem hanging around her neck and remembered Octavia. She felt torn by loss, and yet, more than ever, she felt whole.

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This is the latest in a series of stories set in a weird western setting, where magic is (for the most part) achieved through games. I think this one may have given me more insight into how that works. If you enjoyed this then you might also like the previous stories, Straight Poker and Counting Coup. And you can read my other weird western work in my steampunk collection Riding the Mainspring, which is free if you sign up to my mailing list.

This particular story comes about thanks to Ben Moxon, who came up with the idea for connecting games and divination through a decorated drum. He also led me to this fascinating article on divination, around which Menelaeus/Meredith is built.

Once again, I’m sharpening my writing skills with the exercises from Writing Excuses’s year-long writing course. This week was their last episode on character. The episode was a Q&A, and covered such interesting topics as how to work with character flaws and how to write characters with offensive views without alienating your readers – it’s well worth a listen.

This episode’s writing exercise builds on the previous two, which used a scene of a dead-drop to illustrate character. It also provides a bridge from discussing character to developing story structure:

Sketch out the events before and after your dead-drop scene from last week and three weeks ago.

In doing this exercise, I’m also going to think about how those events expand on the central characters in this fantasy western – Sarah, an escaped slave; Marcus, her Underground Railroad contact; and the local sheriff, our antagonist.

Before the Dead-Drop

Sarah’s pre-dead-drop narrative is the one that comes closest to writing itself. She escaped from the plantation where she was held, with the help of a man named Seneca, who also gave her instructions for contacting the Underground Railroad. This sets up the dead-drop.

To show more about her character, and how she copes on her own, I also want to add in a scene where she’s almost caught the night before the dead-drop. Sarah’s smart, but because of what she’s suffered in slavery she’s also timid and lacks self-confidence. Her response to being pursued isn’t to run or fight back, but to curl up and hide in a ditch. She uses her smarts to hide pretty well, covering herself in stinking mud to try to hide her smell from the sheriff’s dogs, but they almost find her. Fortunately for her, she doesn’t know that she has some magical power (I’ll work out how later) using the system of magic through games I’m using in this setting. The simple prayer she frantically mutters in the ditch is also a rhyme from a childhood game and taps into that magic, and that’s enough to send the dogs and sheriff in another direction.

So in one scene I’ve shown her character, foreshadowed a character arc of learning magic, and had a chance to characterise the sheriff through his dogged and foul mouthed pursuit of escaped slaves, as well as how he interacts with the other pursuers as they close in on Sarah – he’s jovial with those he likes, but vicious towards others.

Meanwhile, Marcus is meeting to plan for Underground Railroad activities. I’d have to do research to write the planning, but what I’m mostly concerned with right now is characterisation and plot driven by the characters. The meeting is a way to show the magic of the setting. Marcus himself can’t use the magic, but is a leader who has magic users working for him. Like so many Railroad activities, their use of magic has to be subtle and low key, and though he works within these limitations it frustrates Marcus. He’d like nothing more than to be part of a full-on uprising against the slave owners of the southern states.

Though he’s not present in Marcus’s scene, the spectre of the sheriff hangs over all their decisions. They know that he’s looking for proof of their activities with growing ruthlessness. They recently lost a friend to him. Like so much else, not being able to punish the sheriff frustrates Marcus.

After the Dead-Drop

Now I get to bring Sarah and Marcus together. As they seem to be my central characters, I want to make things more interesting by developing a conflict between them, one that stems from their personalities.

Having received the note at the dead-drop, Marcus finds Sarah and takes her to a safe house. Waiting there, Sarah players chequers with Meredith Brown, one of the magic users from the dead-drop scene. In doing this, she inadvertently displays magical power, and Meredith realises that Sarah could be a huge asset for the local Underground Railroad. She tells Marcus, who obviously wants Sarah to stay – his whole motive is to grow resistance against slavery.

But Sarah’s scared, and she just wants to run away north to freedom. This leads to an argument with Marcus, who’s frustrated at her not wanting to help, and doesn’t understand why she wouldn’t. Because of her subservient, non-confrontational personality, Sarah backs down. But now she sees this potential ally as another bullying enemy, and is thinking about how to escape him.

Then news arrives that Old Sam, the other local Underground Railroad magic user, has been lynched. This ups the tension and creates an opportunity to show how the characters present react to this – Marcus with anger, Meredith with sorrow, Sarah with fear. We also get to hear about the sheriff’s reaction, which reveals more about his character. He’s furious, and now hunting the perpetrators of the lynching. Because while he might be a racist villain and antagonist of the story, there’s more to him than that. He really hates law-breakers.

On this issue at least, all the characters will be on the same side.

Reflecting on the Exercise

A lot of what I put into the characters wasn’t planned in advance, it emerged through outlining these few scenes, and I’m really pleased with the results. I think it’s a good illustration of what Robert McKee says in his excellent book Story – that plot and character aren’t really separate things, at least when they’re done right. Characters drive the plot, and the plot helps to show the characters.

Take the argument between Marcus and Sarah. That didn’t occur to me when I was developing their characters in the scenes before the dead-drop, but it made perfect sense based on those personalities. It adds a whole new plot strand, a conflict between them over Sarah’s fate, and it’s one that’s all about these characters and what motivates them.

Often, putting your character in a situation is a good way to develop them. I’m pleased with where these characters are heading.

If you’ve got any thoughts on the exercise, or had a go at it yourself and feel like sharing the results, then please leave a comment below. Next week, on to plot structure.

I’m really enjoying doing the recent Writing Excuses exercises. I used a couple to develop Friday’s story, and with it a whole world for future stories of magic in the Wild West. So, skipping over a wildcard week to let me catch up, it’s time for the exercise from episode 10.7:

Pick one of the dead-drop characters from the exercise two weeks ago, and turn them into a secondary character. Now take one of the characters with whom they interacted, and write the same scene again, but from this new character’s POV.

Of the characters from the previous exercise, I’ve since used the most popular one in a story, so I’m going to use the other character who drew some favourable comments – Sarah the escaped slave. Here’s the original version of her journey through the market:

Rough cloth chafed at the raw skin of Sarah’s wrists and ankles, cheap clothing concealing the places where her manacles had been. Fighting the urge to glance around, to give herself away in her anxiety over not getting caught, she stopped at the third stall along, just like Seneca had told her to, and dropped the note he had written her into a tin cup. The man behind the stall whistled a few bars of a spiritual, and as Sarah joined in she felt her spirits lift.

That leaves me with only two other characters mentioned, one of whom isn’t in the scene, so I’ll move the viewpoint to the stall-holder. Same scene, different point of view, and more words this time…

A contact

Marcus could see the sheriff and his deputies eyeing him across the marketplace. Most white folks didn’t like to see a black man with a business of his own, even if that man’s business was a ramshackle market stall selling cheap pots and pans to folks who couldn’t afford no better. If they’d only known Marcus’s real business, they’d have hated him a whole lot more. That hate made Marcus proud.

A woman walked across the marketplace, huddled in a ragged dress and a heavily patched shawl. Her wrists and ankles were carefully covered, and Marcus reckoned he knew what sort of scars lay underneath. Chains weighed heavy and manacles scraped skin.

Stopping at the stall, she looked at his wares without really seeing them, eyes darting nervously. Then she dropped a slip of paper into a cup at the corner of the stall, and Marcus recognised Seneca’s writing on the outside. Just like he’d thought, another fugitive making for the railroad – not the one of cold steel, but the one of warm hearts and desperate hopes.

The sheriff was approaching, casting a suspicious glance toward the oblivious young woman. As she walked away Marcus whistled a hymn. At this signal, Old Sam and Meredith Brown started again on the game of chequers they had going in the shelter of the stall. As they moved the chipped pieces, folks around the market took sudden sidesteps they’d never expected to. A butcher and a labourer knocked into each other, exchanged angry words, and a fight broke out. The sheriff turned to break it up, as the young woman disappeared from view.

Marcus took the piece of paper from the cup and slipped it into his pocket for later.

Reflecting on the exercise

I originally meant to make this as short as the original scene, but once I started I felt I needed more words to do a different character justice, to show both what was distinctive about him and what’s distinctive about the setting. I can see these two characters taking a story of escaped slaves in very different directions – one putting her effort into escape, the other into keeping things moving while evading the law. And both clearly have a place in that story.

What was also interesting was how this exercise in shifting perspective generated other characters. I needed someone to represent the threat of the law, and someone to work the magic at the end. Showing character required a story, which generated more characters, filling more of the niches discussed in this episode of Writing Excuses.

Did anybody else try this exercise? How did you get on? These are really interesting exercises to do, and if you aren’t already I really recommend giving them a try. You can find all the exercises and related episodes over at Writing Excuses.

There are few things more awesome than seeing your passions combined in one great story, film or game. My pleasures include westerns, fantasy, steampunk, boardgames and clever design. Based on all of this, it was inevitable that I’d get into Doomtown Reloaded.

Doomtown Reloaded is a card game from AEG, in which you grapple for control of a lawless Wild West town. The factions involved include ranchers wielding mad science gadgets, a creepy magic carnival, ruthless outlaws, and of course lawmen. There’s a great mix of genre elements in the setting, and character cards that hint at so much more depth than they have space to describe.

But what really sold me on it is the game mechanics. Doomtown cards have suits and values like normal playing cards, and you win or lose shoot-outs by creating poker hands. It’s thematically perfect, not just because poker is so evocative of dark dealings in the Wild West, but because of the tension it builds. As each of you looks at your draw hand, deciding whether to take a risk on changing some of your cards, maybe trying to bluff the other player into a risky play, you can feel the tension mount. It’s like a shoot-out in a film, this long drawn out build-up followed by a sudden, swift moment in which everything is resolved and one side lies dead.

It’s a mechanic that elegantly captures the tone of the setting. And that, to me, is massively pleasing.

Laura and I now play Doomtown most days. It’s not the most relaxing game, but it’s really interesting, and a whole lot of fun. And it’ll probably have me writing magic card game stories like ‘Straight Poker‘ for months to come.

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Picture by takomabibelot via Flickr Creative Commons

Ju-long crouched behind a pile of rails, arrows hissing past his head. Of all the Central Pacific Railroad workers, he was the only one who had known that the attack was coming, who had prepared a place of shelter.

But then, he was the only one who must enter the fight unarmed.

Behind him, the white workers had pulled out guns or run for horses. There were no other Chinese here today, their safety secured by the Cabal, along with the feathered coup stick clutched tight in Ju-long’s hand.

Tension knotted his guts as he peered at the Indian braves. They stalked through the mounds of dirt and heaps of wooden sleepers, most with weapons raised, some carrying torches and axes to destroy the railway workings. The shaman was near the back, directing them with his own coup stick.

It was a good thing for Ju-long that he had a plan.

He waited for a moment when he was not observed, then crept forward to the next stack of rails, and then a mound of dirt beyond that, as careful and precise as if her were setting Go pieces on the board. Every moment was planned, each step bringing him closer to controlling his opponent.

If only he could have used the magic of the Go stones. But the Cabal understood that, in the battle for America, one must learn to win the enemy’s games.

A group of white men charged out of a ditch, wielding picks and shovels. Ju-long dived beneath a wagon as a brutal melee erupted around him. The Indian braves easily cut down their attackers, men Ju-long had worked with, talked with, shared tea with. He saw Olaf Gunderson fall, blood streaming from his neck. Brin Rourke stiffened as the shaman hit him with his coup stick, then turned at the shaman’s command and started attacking his friends.

Fearing for his own life, Ju-long shrank into the shadows beneath the cart, even as he felt the sadness of Olaf’s loss. He had been a good man.

Now the whole construction site was a surging mass of bodies, the smells of blood and smoke filling the air. Men fought with reckless bravery, the sheer chaos of their struggle ruining Ju-long’s plan. There could be no careful advance now, no creeping from cover to cover.

He looked at the coup stick. Of course he could not win by calculation. Counting coup was not that sort of game.

It was a game of braves.

Across the workings, the shaman was advancing toward the men defending a locomotive. He was guarded not just by braves but by three white men who moved with lurching obedience, their souls under his thrall.

Taking a deep breath, Ju-long scrambled from beneath the wagon, and he ran.

Bullets whistled past him, the rifle-wielding whites mistaking him for another brave. The Indians lashed out at him with axes and spears, seeing a stranger in their midst. Something hit him and his legs went weak with pain, but he kept running even as blood ran hot down his side. There was more at stake here than him. He was just one piece on the game board.

His strength was fading, his body threatening to give in on him. With a last surge of will he summoned the spirit of the game, channelling a strength and daring he had never known before. It was exhilarating. He felt so alive.

The shaman turned, looking in confusion at Ju-long. But he was too late.

Ju-long ducked beneath an attack and leapt, touching the shaman with his stick. As he rolled in the dirt he saw the shaman stiffen, an angry fire battling with the coup magic clouding his eyes.

“You have me, brave.” He looked at Ju-long. “What is your will?”

“Your men will not attack me.” Ju-long clutched his side. He felt weak, too weak for a long battle of wills.

“Of course.” The shaman held up his hands and the Indians backed off, not just from Ju-long but from the relieved looking white men. “The attack is over.”

“No.” Ju-long shook his head. He had lived and worked with those men, but European power was still the enemy, expanding like a blight across the continent. The Cabal had their own plans for this land. “I am here to offer alliance. Kill them, and then we will talk.”

The shaman raised his coup stick, the fire gleaming more brightly in his eyes.

“Gladly,” he said.

With a series of war whoops, the fighting began again.

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This story was inspired by Joel Zawada, who wanted to see more of the world of my previous story ‘Straight Poker‘. I refined the idea through a couple of Writing Excuses exercises. Thanks to Ben, Cas, Brittany and Liza for helping me develop my thinking and pick Ju-long as the protagonist. You folks pushed me to take this in an interesting direction, and I expect I’ll be back to this world again before too long.

If you’d like to receive these stories direct to your inbox every Friday, please sign up for my mailing list. You’ll also receive a free copy of Riding the Mainspring, my steampunk anthology, which includes two more weird west stories, ‘The Cast Iron Kid’ and ‘The Horse Whose Hooves Cried Thunder’.

And as always, if you have an idea for one of my future flash Friday stories, or are writing Flash Friday stories yourself and would like my readers to see them, then leave a comment.

Making myself do the Writing Excuses exercises is a good way of refreshing my brain. I realised as I did this exercise that, as well as forcing me to think about character choice differently, it was giving me a break from working on long term projects, shaking the dust from neglected creative gears. The exercise from episode 10.5 was:

Take three different characters and walk them through a scene. Convey their emotional states, their jobs, and their hobbies without directly stating any of those. The scene in question: walking through a marketplace, and they need to do a dead-drop.

I added two extra complications for myself.

Firstly, I used a variation on this exercise that Mary mentioned in the podcast, in which I only have three sentences for each scene. I liked the way this forced me to think about conveying character efficiently.

Secondly, I decided to use characters I came up with for the last exercise. It seemed like a good way of helping me decide between the most likely protagonists for my weird western story.

And here’s what I came up with…

An old Plains Indian woman

Ezhno’s bag of mended clothing bounced against her back as she hobbled across the marketplace, her walking stick tapping at the dirt, beads clacking against its sides. She stopped beside Crazy Wolf’s soup stall, glaring at the jabbering bustle of white men and women as she quietly dropped a cloth bundle and nudged it beneath the stall with her toe. She still needed to return the clothes to their owners, and to make sure that they paid, but she had time first to see what the horse traders had brought in this month.

An escaped slave

Rough cloth chafed at the raw skin of Sarah’s wrists and ankles, cheap clothing concealing the places where her manacles had been. Fighting the urge to glance around, to give herself away in her anxiety over not getting caught, she stopped at the third stall along, just like Seneca had told her to, and dropped the note he had written her into a tin cup. The man behind the stall whistled a few bars of a spiritual, and as Sarah joined in she felt her spirits lift.

A Chinese railroad worker

Ju-long hurried through the marketplace, intent on completing his task before the railroad foreman noticed he was gone. As instructed, he stopped beside a pair of elderly gentlemen playing a close-fought game of go, and taking a playing pebble from his own pocket dropped it beside the board. By the time he was back to hammering spikes, his vote would have been counted and the future of the cabal would be decided.

And the winner is…

OK, I still haven’t decided who to use, and the downside of this exercise is that I’m now more attached to all three characters. One of the biggest challenges was getting across hobbies or similar interests in a setting like this, where there’s not as much leisure and entertainment on display as in our modern world. That stretched me, and is probably the part that shows the least.

If you’d like to share your own attempt at this exercise in the comments then I’d love to see it, or a link to where you’ve done the exercise elsewhere. And let me know what you think of my scenes as displays of character – what works well, what doesn’t, who’s interesting and who isn’t?