Posts Tagged ‘western’

‘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?

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.

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.

IMG_0780[1]Some folks thought the devil’s card hands were all about spades, full of death and darkness. Others that he chose hearts for men’s passions. But Rick had seen enough of the cabalist tables in New York to know better.

That was why Rick had come out west, to get away from the magic before his soul wore through. To play some straight poker – no weaving of power, no double layered games, just good hard bluffing and good cold cash.

It was getting on for midnight in a two shack town when he realised that something wasn’t right. It wasn’t the wind whistling in through the door of the rickety saloon, or the candlelight flickering in the cheap gilt-frame mirrors.

It was the old lady’s play, sticking on a weak pair. That pair was fours, a match for the players around the table, revealed with the diamond on top – man’s greed and payment to the Beast. She played it cool, her other hand patting at her tight grey bun.

Too cool. Poker face even as she lost the pot. They’d all stuck, bound themselves to the game while their guard was down. Rick fought to keep his breathing steady even as his heart hammered. This here was some nasty goings on.

He played it safe for the next few hands, waiting for her to make her move. He didn’t like to be the dove at the table, but the stakes had just rocketed.

Not that the others realised. It was the Apache who went all in, giving his best dead-eyed killer look as he pushed forward a big heap of pennies.

The Indian’s face fell as the old lady’s full house beat his flush. His eyes went blank and he flopped back in his seat.

The old lady ran a finger along her cards. Clubs high, warrior’s cards, tapping into the brave’s soul and snatching it away. A glimmer of power flickered at the corner of her eye.

Rick’s blood ran cold. Not just horror at seeing another man’s spirit stolen but terror at the thought that it could be him next.

The black fellow, a railroad worker out of DC, tried to leap up and away. But his chair was stuck to the ground, and he was trapped just as surely in it. Fear filled his face.

Rick threw his blind penny out onto the table, nodded to the railroad man to do the same.

‘Just play to win,’ he said.

But the real game would be down to him, whatever became of the pot. Rick’s soul might be tarnished but he sure wasn’t willing to give it up easy.

A few more hands went around, the old lady’s eyes flickering with hellfire while Rick’s pile of pennies slowly seeped away. He had to find a way out before his pot ran empty and the witch had him trapped, able neither to win nor to leave. He’d seen zombies made that way, down in the Big Easy, men without a will of their own. Men blank-eyed as the Indian, feeling what was done to them but unable to prevent it. Better death than that.

But there was no way out, not without a good hand or knowing how bad hers was. He tried to buy his way out magically by sticking on two pairs, diamonds in both, but she countered with the three incorruptible men – club, heart and spade of jacks. No good playing diamonds against that.

Soon he had cash for just a few rounds. He watched Titus, the railroad man, blow his last chance on a straight. It might have freed him if the top card had been a diamond, but that nine of spades went down to the old lady’s club flush, and she scooped up his cash along with his soul.

The power in her eyes flared even as Titus went cold. No hiding it now.

Rick dealt, watching the cards fall on the table. He had the queen and ace of clubs, and matching spades in the hole. If he went all in on those pairs it might just about break the spell. But she had two kings on the table, and the ace of hearts besides. With a diamond to match either, she’d take his very soul.

Her eyes stayed steady as she looked at her cards, showing only an ember of their earlier glow. She was giving nothing away.

Then it struck him. Maybe, just maybe, there was no power in her eyes ‘cause her hand held no power. Because right now her magic was weak.

Maybe this was his chance.

It was a slim thing to gamble his soul on. Was he judging her right, or had he lost his touch out here in the west?

He hesitated for a moment, but what choice did he have? He slid his whole pot across the table.

‘All in,’ he declared.

‘You sure?’ she asked.

‘I’m sure.’

She matched his bid and revealed her cards.

No king, no ace, no fire in her eyes.

Rick laid out his two pairs, pushed out what power he had, and the spell broke.

The Indian looked at the table in confusion. Titus bolted from his seat and straight out the door.

Rick gave a sigh of relief. He felt drained, like without the tension he had nothing left.

The old lady shook her head, pushed the pot across to Rick.

‘I’m heading west tomorrow,’ she said. ‘Care to join me? We could make quite a mark, my power and your smarts.’

Rick looked from his winnings to the dazed Indian, then back at her. It had felt good to play that way again. The game behind the game, gambling for life or death.

Other people’s lives. Other people’s deaths.

‘No ma’am,’ he said, scooping up his winnings. ‘Straight poker’s good enough for me.’

 

*

Doing the Writing Excuses exercise earlier this week, I developed an idea about magic using playing cards. It’s not the first time I’ve played with that theme, so it seemed like a good time to whip this story out.

Plus I’ve just started playing weird western card game Doomtown, so I’m all about the wild west this week.

If you enjoyed this then you might also like my other free to read Flash Friday stories, my fantasy collection By Sword, Stave or Stylus, or even my steampunk collection Riding the Mainspring, which contains a couple of western flavoured stories.

I’m currently working on a fantasy/scifi idea suggested by Glenatron, but if anybody else has an idea for something they’d like to see me include in a Flash Friday story then let me know – I’m always open to ideas.

Who doesn’t love a jolly holiday? From Noddy going to the seaside to the Famous Five getting into trouble with smugglers, books seemed to be full of holidays when I was a kid. For adults? Not so much.

Or maybe I’m just reading the wrong books.

As a writer, cutting myself off from work is a vital part of any holiday. If I have a computer or an internet connection then it’s hard to relax without thinking about all the things I should be doing, from freelance contracts to blog posts to the next chapter of my magnum opus.

So that’s what I’m about to do.

By the time you read this I will be on holiday – work, blog and other cares left far behind along with Shelly, my faithful computer. I had meant to schedule some posts ahead of time, but the hours ran out and I had other deadlines to meet before I disappeared. So this is it for a couple of weeks.

By way of a departing nod, here’s a guest post I wrote for FictionVale on why westerns and science fiction combine so well. Hope you enjoy it, and I’ll be back in April.

Have a fun couple of weeks – I know I will.

 “Man walks down the street in a hat like that, you know he’s not afraid of anything … ” – Mal, Firefly

Straight up westerns aren’t all that popular these days. Despite the success of the magnificently dark Deadwood and Hell on Wheels there are very few on television, and even fewer in the cinema. Yet in sf+f we’re seeing western elements find their own growing niche. Not since Clint Eastwood sang his way through Paint Your Wagon have western mash-ups been so popular.

 

Science fiction westerns

It all seems to have started with the science fiction westerns. Star Trek was famously sold as Wagon Train in space, and while it may not have had many western trappings it certainly dealt with many of the key themes – wild frontiers; manly men in the rugged outdoors; civilisation transformed in the face of the other.

More recently Joss Whedon put the western elements front and centre in Firefly, possibly the most mourned show ever to face early cancellation. Again he explored themes of civilisation and borderland living, along with outlaws and the lingering divisions that follow civil war. But this time there were cowboys, shootouts and even a train robbery – yeehaw!

Steampunk westerns

In many ways steampunk’s a great fit with westerns. You’ve got the nineteenth century technology, outfits and attitudes. You’ve got frontier living again, combining technological and geographical frontiers. You’ve got dreams of a greater future twisted round with dark consequences. OK, so all of this was pre-empted by Wild Wild West, but now that steampunk’s properly emerged as a genre you can see the two being combined to good effect. That’s why the likes of Josh Stanton are scribbling away at steampunk westerns. Even I’ve had some success in that area.

Fantasy westerns

Now we’re seeing fantasy influenced by westerns as well. Of course Stephen King’s Dark Tower has been kicking around for a while, and is something of a favourite work for King himself. But Joe Abercrombie‘s also done it with Red Country, stripping away the technology of the western but keeping its tension and drama, from the grand conflicts between settlers and governments back home to the intimate brutality of the pre-shoot-out stand-off. It’s the social side of the old west, the behaviours and the social structures, rather than the technology and fashion, and it’s utterly compelling.

Back to the beginning

It’s great to see all these mashups. I love westerns and I love to see them combined with other genres in this way. It’s why I’ve written things like A Sheriff In The Deep and The Cast Iron Kid. But you can still never go wrong by going back to the classics. So if you’ve enjoyed any of the stories I’ve mentioned above then do yourself a favour and go watch some Clint Eastwood too. Pick up Pale Rider or The Outlaw Josey Wales. They’re exciting, evocative films, and worth every moment.

 

I love westerns, and I love science fiction, so I’m pretty excited to say that my sci-fi western ‘A Sheriff In The Deep’ is out this week in Fictionvale.

Excitement, adventure and fishes

‘A Sheriff’ is the story of a lone man, your classic western small town sheriff, protecting a community of homesteaders against the encroaching bully boys hired by a big business. It’s about frontier justice. It’s about a lone hero standing up for the little guy. It’s about brains over brawn. And it’s about living underwater.

Yep, it’s Shane in the ocean depths.

But why this story?

So why did I write a story like that? Well, mostly it’s because I love westerns, especially sci-fi westerns, so the combination of the two was hard to resist.

But I’m also intrigued by trying to explore different sci-fi futures. Space exploration features a lot in sci-fi, but we don’t often explore the briny deeps even though settling there is starting to look more plausible than getting into space. There’s all sorts to explore around the practicalities of this and the international issues it would raise, which I’ve only glanced over in this short story. But I think there’s a lot to do in the deep.

As for the lone sheriff as hero, I’ve been a fan of that since my dad first got me watching westerns as a kid. I’ve previously had a steampunk western, The Cast Iron Kid, published in a steampunk anthology. And as in that story, I really enjoyed writing the part of the plucky underdog here. It’s a big part of the traditional western, and a theme almost everyone finds appealing.

The great folks at Fictionvale

It’s also been a pleasure to work with Jenna and Venessa, the editors of Fictionvale. They’re a relatively new magazine – this is only their second issue – and they’ve been struggling to get this one out amidst all sorts of distractions and setbacks. Despite that they’ve been friendly and helpful to work with, and managed to take a hands on approach to editing that improved my story – something many short story magazine editors don’t have time for.

Go forth and read!

Fictionvale is available for e-readers via their store or Amazon for only $4 American, which comes out around £2.50 for those of us carrying pictures of the queen. You can spend that much on a large coffee. Hell, you can barely even buy a pint for that any more. So why not give it a go?

If you do read the story then come back here and let me know what you think of it. Good or bad, I’d love to hear your opinion.