Preview: Road Trip

Road Trip

This a preview of my story, Road Trip, which will be published in late December 2018, about a month from now. It’s Chapter 1 of an urban fantasy set in 2003 and featuring a former Marine injured in the war in Afghanistan.


Rocco Fitch spotted the beggar on his regular morning walk to get a latte at Emilio’s Coffee Shop. It wasn’t that seeing a beggar in this corner of Florida was unusual. The area was rife with them thanks to the mild year-round climate, the prevalence of tourists, and the cool breeze that came from the ocean in the evening. No, it was the cardboard sign that the man was holding up as Rocco approached that had caught his attention:

Road For Sale
$10.00
Change Your Life Now!
Any sale is FINAL!!!!!

Rocco limped to a stop in front of the man, shifting most of his weight to his left leg to relieve the strain on his bad leg, which was already aching from the exertion of the walk. So much for the daily exercise my doctors have been recommending.

The beggar was sitting on the sidewalk in the shade of one of Florida’s ubiquitous palm trees with his legs stretched out before him and his back up against the pastel yellow stucco of the coffee shop. Just above the man’s head, a plate glass window allowed Rocco to see into the shop; Emilio was bustling around behind the counter serving a short queue of customers.

The beggar shook the cardboard sign hopefully, drawing Rocco’s attention back to him. The man was broad-shouldered, with black hair and a long bushy beard that hung down to a respectable paunch. He wore a pair of dark gray work trousers, slightly threadbare at the knees, and a plaid shirt. The man’s attire seemed old-fashioned in some indefinable way that Rocco couldn’t put his finger on, and less grungy than most of the beggars and homeless people Rocco had seen.

He’d also never seen a sign quite like this one before. Curiosity piqued, he asked, “You’re selling a road?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Why?”

“Don’t want it no more,” the man said with a thick, Southern drawl, looking up at Rocco with penetrating blue eyes.

“Why would anybody want to buy your road?”

“That’s easy. To get places.” He shook his head sadly, as if Rocco’s question had been the most stupid thing he’d heard in a long time. “To see things they ain’t never seen afore. Maybe even for the adventure of it.”

Rocco bristled a bit at the implied disdain in the man’s response. “If it’s such a great road, why don’t you want it anymore?”

The man sighed heavily. “Mister, I done outlived all my friends, all my family, everybody I ever cared about.” He looked away from Rocco, his gaze fixed on the thin slice of blue ocean just visible down the block. “The road…it can’t give me what I want most in the world. My time is past, and I just want it to be over. It’s past time for me to just fade away like everything else.”

“I feel for you, man.” The man was clearly depressed, but Rocco could sympathize with him. His own life was kind of in shambles, as well. “I’ve been there, too. If it’s any consolation, it does get better.”

“Really?”

Rocco shrugged. “Sometimes.”

He started to walk away, then stopped as a he caught a glimpse of a strikingly pretty, dark-haired young lady, perhaps mid-twenties, in a white dress looking at them through the shop’s window. She’d moved out of sight by the time he’d turned back to fully face the window. He saw that the beggar had partially turned as well, as if to see what he’d been looking at.

Pointing at the window, he asked the beggar, “Did you see a lady in a white dress?”

“Yes, sir,” the man said, flashing a grin that revealed a set of perfect white teeth. “Pretty thing. Probably admiring my considerable charms.”

Rocco laughed. “Maybe so.” The man’s answer was pat and humorous, but somehow evasive as well, as if Rocco had caught him in some sort of lie. “Well, good luck with the sale,” he said, turning away to enter the cool interior of the cafe.

A few minutes later, having secured his usual caffeinated fix from Emilio, Rocco made his way between the small tables holding his hot coffee carefully. The lady in the white dress was nowhere to be seen. He navigated around a baby carriage, complete with a sleeping baby in a blue jumper, which belonged to a twenty-something Latina woman. A little girl, perhaps four years old and as cute as could be, sat next to the woman and stared up at his face as he passed.

He took his usual seat near the window, which provided not only a good tourist-watching vantage point, but also had a good view of the cafe’s large-screen television. Emilio, never a sports fan, was showing Law & Order with subtitles but no sound.

As he sat down, he heard the little girl say loudly, “Mama, how come that man’s face is messed up?”

“Shhhh. It’s not polite to say things like that.”

“But I want to know!”

He’d just taken a tentative sip of his coffee when he heard the patter of footsteps coming his way. The little girl stopped next to his table.

“Mama says it’s not po-lite,” the little girl said breathlessly. “But what happened to your face?”

“Maria!” The girl’s mother said loudly, awkwardly getting up to chase her wayward daughter.

Rocco looked at the girl and smiled. Little kids were a hoot. They’d say anything sometimes because they didn’t have the filters that adults had. But they weren’t judgmental, either, which was always refreshing. Unlike his ex-wife.

“Well, I was in the Marines,” he said. “And we were on a training mission. So we parachuted out of this plane and, well, I drifted over this town because of the wind.” He nodded at the girl’s mother as she arrived. “The highest building in town was a really big church, with a really tall steeple. And I landed right on it. Scraped my face down the entire side of that steeple, just this one side, see? Hurt like the dickens, I’ve got to tell you.

“So, if you ever jump out of an airplane, make sure you don’t land on a church steeple, okay?”

“Okay,” Maria said, nodding seriously.

Sure makes a better story than being blown up by a roadside bomb and trapped in a burning, upside-down Hummer.

Stopping beside Maria, her mother said, “I’m so sorry. She’s curious about everything.”

Rocco shrugged. “No worries. She’s a cute kid.” The little girl reminded him of his daughter, Elise, when she was that age. Now she was twelve, living with his ex-wife in Ohio.

The woman smiled and tugged Maria back to their table.

He nursed his latte for a little over an hour, unintentionally caught up in the Law & Order episode that was playing. He wasn’t sure why he was curious about her, but he never did spot the lady in the white dress.

Leaving, Rocco pushed the door open and stepped out into the sunshine, squinting at the brightness as he left the dim interior of Emilio’s. The beggar was still sitting in the same place. Something in his posture, the way he leaned against the building and his tired patience, reminded him of soldiers he’d seen waiting for deployment in crowded airport terminals.

Rocco walked over. “You a veteran?”

“Yeah,” the man said. “Different war, though.” He looked pointedly at Rocco’s right leg and the way that his jeans hung limply around the lower half. “I was lucky, I came out unscathed.”

“First Gulf War?”

“No. Further back. I’m a little older than I look.”

Rocco gave him a measuring glance. He didn’t look old enough for Vietnam, but then again, maybe he was.
Acting on impulse, he reached into his pocket and pulled out about a dollar’s worth of change. Holding it out to the man, he said, “Well, I don’t need a road, but I can spare some change to help out a fellow veteran.”

The man shook his head. “Sir, I thank you, but I got money. It’s this road that I need to sell, afore I can do anything else.”

“Well, I don’t have ten bucks.”

“What do you have?”

Rocco fished some more loose change out of his pocket, then counted it all. He added two dollar bills from his wallet and held it all out to the man.

He wasn’t even sure why he was doing this, but he said, “Here’s three dollars and thirty-seven cents. It’s all the money I’ve got left in the world.”

“Sir, I accept your kind offer,” the man said, standing up and taking the money from him. He was a few inches shorter than Rocco’s own rangy six feet. He held out his hand and Rocco shook it automatically. He had a firm, confident grasp. “You are now the proud owner of a road.”

The man started walking away.

“Hey! Where do I find this road?”

The man turned, gave him a lopsided grin and said, “Don’t worry. It will find you.”

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Upcoming: Road Trip

My latest story is a novelette called “Road Trip,” which will be appearing in the upcoming anthology, Reliquary, edited by S. C. Megale, Donna Royston and myself.

Here’s a preview of the story:

It’s 2003 and Rocco Fitch is a down-and-out disabled veteran of the War Against Terror, having been severely injured by an IED in Afghanistan. Since his return, his wife has left him (taking his daughter with her), he can’t get a job, unemployment payments have run out, his car’s been repossessed, the bank wants to foreclose on his house and life just isn’t working out well in general

Then some beggar tries to sell him a road. Sensing that the beggar is a war vet like himself, Rocco buys the road from him for all the money he has left: $3.37.

At first, Rocco thinks the sale is just a strange way for the beggar to talk himself into accepting a handout from a fellow vet. But then he wakes up the next morning with a road, a magical road, crossing his backyard. A road that nobody else can see…

Besides the mysterious road that he now owns, the one bright spot in his life is his unlikely friend, his neighbor Sammie, an aging black rogue with a diabolical sense of humor, a foul mouth, friends in low places and a rather piratical way of looking at the world.

Between the two of them, they might just be able to set Rocco’s life on a new and different path.

It’s intended to be the first of a series of novelettes that I’m calling RoadWerks, LLC. If all goes well, the anthology should be coming out at the end of May, 2016, in both ebook and print. The story will be separately available for purchase on Amazon in January, 2016.

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Thoughts on Dixie Fey: The Accidental Urban Fantasy Series

Dixie FeyThere was one really interesting thing that happened when I ran my workshop, “Creating an Adaptive Setting,” at Capclave last October. I created the “Dixie Fey” urban fantasy setting, based in the southern U.S., as a world-building exercise to illustrate the strategies I was teaching in my workshop.

To my surprise, in addition to the workshop itself going extremely well, it turned out that the “Dixie Fey” setting turned out to be considerably more of a hit with the attendees than I expected. I fielded questions from the class in which they asked me if the setting was real, i.e. – if I was setting stories there. And whether I’d consider a “Dixie Fey” anthology.

I intend to run this workshop again. I can’t help but wonder if this question will come up again. It seems to me that there’s an opportunity here. Somewhere.

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The Reactive Net: A Strategy for Writing Series

The Harry Potter SeriesUnless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ve almost certainly noticed that a lot of authors are making money with series. The reason for this is simple: readers buy the things that they like, and a sequel to a book they’ve already enjoyed is the easiest sale of all. However, many writers are finding out that crafting a series isn’t as easy as they thought it would be.

It turns out that creating a series is, well, hard. Not only that, but series are prone to different types of failures, both in their initial setup and in how they progress. Here are a few examples (slightly exaggerated for effect) of what can go wrong:

  • The rebels killed the evil emperor and took over the empire in Book 1. What’s left for them to do in Book 2?

  • The world-building details were sufficient to set up the precise constraints needed for the first book to work, but they weren’t consistent or detailed enough to support additional books.

  • The hero has a mystery in their background that needs to be solved. How long should it take to solve the mystery? What happens to the series when it’s solved?

  • The series is built around the tension between a vampire and the human woman who loves him. What happens to the dynamic of the series when they get married?

  • The author takes their sexy, supernatural urban fantasy and starts emphasizing the kinky sex until they lose (the male) half of their audience.

I believe that I have some interesting insights when it comes to series, despite the fact that I don’t have a New York Times best-selling series or a Hollywood-optioned trilogy to my name. You see, I’ve been doing series for thirty-five years a really long time. Not only that, but I’ve regularly put my series to the test in front of a highly critical live audience and, frankly, I haven’t had a lot of complaints.

I create and run run roleplaying games.

I’m not talking about the kind of fun but simplistic gaming sessions where the heroes descend into a “dungeon” and kill lots of monsters. I’m talking about “interactive novels” with complicated story lines, unexpected plot twists, hundreds of supporting characters (non-player characters for you gamer types), lots of competing factions, etc. Some of my “campaigns” continued for twenty or thirty twelve-hour games with the same loose group of characters.

Can you imagine keeping someone involved and engaged with the details of an intricately unfolding plotline for 360 hours?

I can. I’ve done it.

Leveraging this experience from the gaming realm, I came up with what I call the Reactive Net, a set of steps for crafting the canvas of your series. I believe the Reactive Net works just as effectively in the world of prose fiction as it did for me in the gaming realm.

Oh, it doesn’t solve every problem. It’s a strategy for designing a series, not a silver bullet. As such, it won’t solve all of the problems I highlighted above, but it can help you with a bunch of them. At the very least, it’s another tool in your Writer’s Toolbox.

Maybe the Reactive Net will work for you, or maybe not. It’s certainly helped me with my own fiction.

What is the Reactive Net?

The Reactive Net is a set of steps for creating a coherent, consistent and connected background that can support the creation of multiple story lines over time leveraging the same setting, characters and a diverse cast of supporting characters. It’s primarily focused on developing sufficient background details and connectivity to provide your series with a firm foundation that will support whatever you want to do with it.

Crafting unique primary characters and their ongoing story arcs is something you’ll have to layer on top of the Reactive Net.

The steps for creating a Reactive Network are detailed below, along with an extended example that illustrates the design of an urban fantasy.

  1. Define the “Playing Field.”
     
    The Playing Field is the home territory where most of the action in the series will occur. For Batman, it’s Gotham City. For Harry Potter, it’s Hogwarts. For the wizard, Harry Dresden from The Dresden Files, it’s Chicago. We’re looking for a bit more than just “Chicago,” though — what we really want is a thumbnail sketch that gives us a bit of the flavor of your Playing Field.

    Our Playing Field will be Kosmopolis, a small but growing city in the state of Tennessee, situated in a valley surrounded by rolling hills and forests. This up-and-coming city has become a high-tech center thanks to the relocation of the headquarters of MOEX Technologies, a cutting-edge bio-tech company, to the city. Kosmopolis is also the home of Dartfell University, an educational institutional with an excellent reputation in bio-tech and computer science. Whether you’re looking for the cultural amenities of a booming city, the beauty of nearby nature reserves or just want to experience our local agricultural and art festivals, Kosmopolis has something for everyone.

    OK, there’s a bit of “marketing speak” in the description above, but basically Kosmopolis will allow characters to rub shoulders with urban, rural and artistic communities, as well as high-tech companies and a university. There’s nothing particularly fantastical about this setting, yet, but we’ll fix that before we’re through.

  2. Are there any special rules in play?
     
    Special rules are things that are of vital importance to your series, like whether magic works, supernatural creatures exist, people with superpowers exist, etc. To put it another way, if there’s a Hell-Mouth (as in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series) anywhere nearby, here’s where you mention that vital fact.

    For this series, there are some special rules. Supernatural creatures have come out to the public. Vampires and werewolves are known to exist. There’s speculation about other types of supernatural creatures that haven’t revealed themselves yet.

    As a corollary, magic exists, too, but isn’t very common. Of course, it’s a little more common in Kosmopolis, since one of the major nexus points for ley lines lies just outside the city. Strangely, the artistic sub-culture of the city seems to be anchored around the nexus.

  3. What are the factions?
     
    A good series needs conflict, but predictable conflict is boring. To provide the potential for interesting conflict, you need factions, i.e. – groups or organizations, with differing: 1) attitudes, 2) goals, 3) strengths and 4) weaknesses. Sometimes factions can oppose each other; alternately, the interests of two or more factions may be aligned for a short time.

    Here are eight factions for our urban fantasy series:

    At a minimum, you’ve got the Kosmopolis city government (which is notoriously corrupt), MOEX Technologies and Dartfell University. There’s also the police, which is a powerful group that’s not necessarily precisely congruent with city government policy. Since the city government is corrupt, the FBI could be conducting an ongoing investigation into the corruption. That’s five factions.

    Since this is going to be an urban fantasy, let’s add three more factions. We’ll add a local Werewolf Pack (Kosmopolis has ready access to nature parks and is set in an area of rolling hills and forests). Let’s also add the Kalifey, a small community of diverse fey living in the deceptively-sized Brambles (an old-growth forest adjacent to one of the large parks and conveniently close to the nexus). Finally, we’ll add the Church of Christ Triumphant, a conservative religious group that holds supernatural creatures to be irredeemably evil.

    Let’s flesh one organization out in a little more detail: The Church of Christ Triumphant.

    Attitude: The Church of Christ Triumphant hates everything to do with the supernatural. Everything supernatural is part of a nefarious plot by Satan. All supernatural creatures and those who dabble in the black arts (magic) should die violently. Supernatural creatures, including mages, are not really people.

    Goals: Their goal is to expunge the supernatural from the world. However, they are ruthless and pragmatic about achieving their goals.

    Strengths: They’re relentless, smart and wealthy. They’re also good at public relations.

    Weaknesses: They are relentless. Sometimes they don’t recognize when to cut their losses. They’re fanatical. Compromise isn’t a word in their vocabulary.

    If stories truly revolve around conflict, well, I can see lots of ways in which these eight factions can come into conflict.

  4. How do the factions operate?
     
    How do the factions perform their day-to-day operations? Where do they get the money they need to run? How do they recruit new members? Who’s doin’ deals with who? Here are some potential answers to some of these questions:

    Here are some examples:

    The Werewolf Pack has a group house owned by the pack leader where they all meet. They live separately and tithe 10% of their income to the pack.

    Dartfell University has research programs sponsored by the federal government and MOEX Technologies. One of those programs is to develop drugs that can affect supernatural creatures.

    MOEX Technologies pioneered the blood substitute, AAA-Plus ™, that vampires use so they’re not dependent on human blood.

    The Church of Christ Triumphant runs a syndicated “Anti-Monster” radio show. They also accept donations from all over the country to campaign against the supernatural realm.

    When you’re done working some of these details out, you’ve got a web of organizations with competing goals, who are likely to clash in certain areas, or cooperate in others. Again, anything that provides for potential conflict is good.

    Note: You don’t have to work out every possible detail about each faction. You just need a rough sketch of how each organization operates and the general attitudes/motivations prevalent within them.

  5. Define key people in (and outside) the various factions.
     
    The key people are supporting characters that you expect will probably play a role in your series. Spenser, the famous detective from Boston, had his friends in the police force that he could call on for help. He also had periodic run-ins with some of the mob posses in his city.

    Here are some sample characters (or, really, just roles at this point):

    The ambitious reporter who’s looking for a great story.

    The FBI agent investigating corruption in the city government.

    The local fence for stolen goods.

    The veterinarian at the local zoo (who may have some insights into unusual creatures).

    The fixer from the local Werewolf Pack, responsible for making sure the werewolves aren’t portrayed in a bad light (and fixing any problems that arise).

    The guy selling a new recreational drug that impacts supernatural creatures.

    You don’t have to work out these people in detail (not until you need them). You just need to know the types of people that exist so you can bring them into a story if it makes sense.

Everything I’ve just described is your Reactive Net, the canvas where the events of your series will be taking place.

Putting the Reactive Net Through It’s Paces

We just spent a lot of time working out background details for our series. Isn’t that just world-building? Well, yes, and, at the same time, no.

Drawing a map is world-building, but how much does it help you craft a story? The goal of the Reactive Net is to provide a background with connectivity (the “net” part of Reactive Net) that can help you determine what happens as a result of the inciting events of your story.

Let’s just try it out, and everything will become clearer. We’re going to sketch out some story ideas layered on top of the Reactive Net of our urban fantasy, so we can see how it all works in practice.

Your hero learns that someone has been savagely mauled in the nature park by an animal. The local Werewolf Pack is worried that they might have a rogue lycanthrope that’s moved into the area, so they send their fixer to quietly investigate. The Police want to know what’s going on. Your hero wants to prevent anybody else from getting hurt. The hero talks to the vet at the local zoo, who was originally brought in by the police to look at the body. The hero may also encounter the fixer from the Werewolf Pack. The Church of Christ Triumphant would like to use the incident as part of an anti-monster campaign. Your local reporter smells a story, too. Finally, the Kalifey are annoyed because the body was left near the Brambles — was it a warning or a threat aimed at them?

We haven’t even defined who our hero is yet, but one little incident has attracted interest from the local Werewolf Pack, the Police, the Church of Christ Triumphant and the Kalifey. We’ve also brought in characters like the fixer from the Werewolf Pack, the vet from the zoo, the ambitious reporter and, potentially, others. There’s a workable story in there somewhere.

Still not convinced? Let’s do it again.

A half-blood fey dies of an overdose of a new street drug that affects supernatural creatures (this isn’t really supposed to be possible). The Kalifey want to know where the drug came from, but they’re a little hampered when it comes to investigating a crime in human society. They ask our hero to investigate on their behalf. Meanwhile, the Police want to find whoever’s distributing bad drugs (they don’t know about the fey connection). The Werewolf Pack is involved again because the drug affects werewolves, too. Dartfell University is involved because the drug was a byproduct of one of their experiments, and its been hijacked by an insider for illicit purposes.

The essence of the Reactive Net is that when an event occurs, people and organizations react, generating various types of conflict. Not only do they react, but they do so in logical, consistent ways. But the reactions don’t just occur in response to the inciting events of your stories, they also occur when your hero takes action as well. After all, what lengths will Dartfell University go to to cover up the scandal your hero exposed with regard to their most lucrative government grant?

Conclusion

The Reactive Net is basically a highly connected, interactive model of your series, a simulation that you can run in your own mind. It allows you to explore what-if scenarios, like: What would happen if the child of a member of the Church of Christ Triumphant was accidentally bitten by a werewolf? It’s a tool for generating plausible reactions to events that might reasonably occur in your series. It’s your background details, but packaged together with expected behavior on the part of the factions and key supporting characters that you’ve defined.

So there you have it: the Reactive Net, a new and, hopefully, useful tool for your Writer’s Toolbox. I hope it proves as useful for you as it has for me.

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