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Setting as character, Part 2: Unique knowledge

In his book The Old Ways, travelogue writer Robert Macfarlane suggests, “The question one should ask of any strong landscape is: what do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else?”

Not every location will inspire unique insights, but asking this question of your setting in general, as well as powerful sites within your setting, can be a useful world-building exercise.

If you’re not sure where to start, try recalling an experience of your own. Here’s an example:

About fifteen years back, I took my mother to Ireland for a week. One day we visited the Cliffs of Moher, which drop dramatically from green, rocky hills into the Irish Sea. Walking any distance was difficult for Mom, so we had a wheelchair handy and I pushed her up the hill to the overlook, a stone wall where tourists gather to gaze at the cliffs. She was happy to stay there for a bit, so I wandered off toward the tower. As I stood on the hill, looking out to sea, I got a powerful sense that the land not only welcomed, but claimed me. “These are my cliffs. They say to those who come by sea, ‘This far, and no further.’ If necessary, you will do the same.” And at that moment, I would have. The willingness to fight and die for a piece of real estate is a widely acknowledged notion, but I’d never actually felt it. Like many Americans, I’ve lived in many places, and I’ve liked some more than others, but picking up your life and moving it somewhere else is not only an option, it’s an expectation. I’d never encountered a place that demanded more of you. I’d never realized it was possible to experience no meaningful separation between who you are and where you stand. That was a very strange and profound moment.

Now, back to your setting. After you ask what unique thing your character learns from the setting, here’s a followup: How is the character changed by what he learned or experienced?

This change might be large or small, but it will occur. Every time we do or think something new, physical changes occur in our brains. Neural connections form or strengthen. Activity in certain areas increases. This process is profound, but it’s also invisible. Writers need to find tangible ways to demonstrate the impact knowledge has on a character. 

When I look for examples in fictious worlds, I keep returning to Darkover. The pollen of certain flowers had a halucinogetic effect that jumpstarted laran, a psychic ability similar to D&D psionics. The humans who settled there very literally knew things they could have known nowhere else. Initially, only a few people developed these powers. Since laran was hereditary, after a few generations, families who had it became Darkover’s ruling class. The world is like a strange and alien sorceress who, for reasons of her own, gave magic to a favored few.

When you’re thinking about the impact setting has on your characters, keep in mind that no two people are going to see the world in quite the same way, so your characters might learn very different things from the same location.

For example, let’s say your rogue and paladin walk into a busy summer faire. Your paladin feels profoundly uneasy, and she senses a flavor of evil she has never before encountered–banal, self-serving, grasping, a value system that glorifies vulgar display and useless material things above all else. Raised in a monastery, a veteran of holy wars, she knows how to deal with monsters and the armed forces of tyrants, but the inequity she sees at the faire–the wealthy gem merchant shoving his way past hungry children–is not something her sword can resolve. She might be struck with a sense of her own limitations, or perhaps by the realization that while she would gladly die to protect the people of this land, she doesn’t particularly like them. As she tells her companion, “There is nothing for me to fight here, and nothing worth fighting for.”  The rogue sees the same things the paladin does, but she realizes that she knows how to beat every one of these grifters, thieves, and lowlifes at their own games. For the rogue, the faire is like coming upon a mirror, suddenly and unexpected, and seeing something there she didn’t know existed. That might dismay or delight her. It might make her reassess her life, or it might raise her confidence level and prompt her to try something far more daring and ambitious than she’d ever before considered. Or both.

Again, this technique isn’t something you’ll apply to every new location, but it’s another tool for creating a settings with strong and distinctive personalities.

Setting as character, Part 1: Genius loci

One of the panels I did for Gen Con’s Writer’s Symposium was “Setting as Character.”  An hour really isn’t enough time to address this topic, so I  immediately started thinking about things to add to a similar discussion in the future.

First is the concept of genius loci, the spirit or essence of a place. This could either be a literal guardian spirit, or simply a distinctive atmosphere. It’s a good place to start a discussion of setting as character, but oddly enough, we didn’t touch on this at all.

As fantasy writers, we have a huge vocabulary of mythical and fantastical creatures who guard particular places. There are dryads and treants in the forest, nyads and rusalka in the waters, minataurs in mazes, and magical caves and sacred springs that have a different, less personified sentience. Not every fictional location has (or needs) a literal guardian, but this notion suggests a good thought exercise to use when developing a setting.

If nothing comes to mind, it might help to get the ball rolling if you look for examples in your own experience, or in folklore and fiction. Here’s a personal example:

We did a driving tour of Scotland when Andrew and Sean were in middle school, and one of my oddest and strongest memories was an afternoon traveling through bleak, deserted landscape on a one-lane dirt road. Every now and then there was a place to pull off to let another vehicle pass, but we never needed them. In nearly three hours, we didn’t see another car. No people, no sheep, not even a bird. The sun became mist-shrouded when we turned onto this road and didn’t appear until we came to a main road. Time seem to be suspended, and according to the milage on the map, the trip took much longer than it should have. The sense of moving from the world we knew into something alien and “Other” was powerfully strong. If I had to envision a genius loci, it would probably be a huge, translucent raven–a psycopomp that could ferry people between worlds. The image of a large, mist-colored werewolf also came to mind more than once. It’s hard to travel through that part of Scotland without feeling that the land could very easily express itself in the form of mythical (and probably malevolent) creatures.

Sometimes the genius loci  doesn’t lend itself to personification, but is easily identifiable as an emotion, attitude, or pattern of behavior. This isn’t an original theory, but sometimes I envision the setting of Game of Thrones as an elaborate gameboard, with the gods–the Old and the New and probably a few who are seldom mentioned in the prayers of the Westeros faithful–as the real players. They have their kings and queens, bishops and warriors, perhaps even their avatars. I don’t know what these gods want, but who ever does?  Still, their essence infuses certain locations, such as the sacred tree near Winterfell. In the north, the Old Gods still seem present; I don’t think it was a coincidence that the Three-Eyed Raven was melded to an ancient tree. But wherever you go, there are frequent references to ancient conflicts, and the feeling that the essence of Westeros is the sense that everyone who lives there is part of an endless, deadly game. 

When you’re doing the “character sheet” for your setting-as-character, start with some of the usual suspects–appearance, resources, and history–and then consider less obvious notions, such as what secrets the land might have, and how it would protect them. Is there something about the flora, fauna, or mineral deposits that create a unique characteristic?  (Example: The halucenagenic pollen of certain plants on the planet Darkover jumpstarted psychic powers in the human newcomers.)  What about the seasons?  A world with a predictable pattern of relatively short seasons will be a very different place that one that has a more elliptical orbit, two suns, or other factors that lead to extreme or extended seasons. If your world includes magic, the notion of genius loci is likely to be an important part of your magic system. Places of magical concentration, such as ley lines, haunted forests, and sacred pools, give a setting personality as well as power.

Since every character is revealed through his/her/its relationship with others, think about the relationship between the land and the people who live on it or move through it. Is it one of mutual benefit, or is it adversarial? How does the spirit of the land effect these people? Do they become dour, grim, and suspicious? Are they more likely to take an interest in magic than the people in the next valley?

Finally, how do your characters perceive the genius loci?  Is it something they fear and avoid, embrace and emulate, or simply accept as they would the weather and topography? Are they even aware of it? If residents are oblivious to something that visitors perceive, that opens a whole new set of story possibilities.

Meditation: Methods and madness

Learning to meditate can be a long, slow process. As I’ve previously discussed, I have a bad case of squirrel brain, and it’s never easy to get my thoughts to sit down and shut up. But I keep at it, a little every morning, and it’s starting to get a bit easier.

When I’m feeling particularly scattered, one thing that helps is starting out with a home-brewed chakra meditation. This gives me several things to focus on. I silently repeat the name of the chakra point and the related color as I breathe in, and on the exhale I focus on two qualities associated with that point and color. Moving my attention down the body also helps me identify and eliminate tension. (I carry an enormous amount of tension in my neck and shoulders, which probably explains the herniated disk. Being mindful of this, if only for a few minutes a day, does seem to help.)

Here’s my personal routine:

Crown: purple.  Knowledge, understanding.
Third eye: indigo, Perception, intuition.
Throat: blue. Communication, song.
Heart: green.  Life, love.
Solar plexus: yellow.  Breath, optimism.
Core: orange.  Motivation, creativity.
Base: red.  Strength, energy.

This gives my mind a lot to do. It centers on a particular physical area and checks in for tension, it envisions a color and sometimes a scene that embodies that color (an October landscape, for example), and it takes a moment to acknowledge values that are important to me. It’s a lot, but it’s also focused and deliberate, and it slows down the squirrel brain from a multi-directional dash to a more sedate jog. A couple of times through this routine, and I’m usually ready to simply follow the breath.

I’m not doing this because I’m an aging hippy, although admittedly, that description isn’t too far off the mark. The ability to focus attention is pivotal to creativity and productivity, and I’m determined to get a whole lot more of that going on. Meditation is one of the tools I’m using to turn things up a notch.


The German translation of Winter Witch will be released next week by publisher Feder & Schwert. They’ll have a page up late next week; I’ll provide a link when it’s available.

This might sounds like a dubious use of promotional energy, as most people who read this post probably won’t read or speak German, but you never know.

For example, I grew up hearing German spoken. Kinda sorta. My grandmother was Polish, and she often mixed up English and German words because hey–close enough. I just absorbed the meanings, as kids do, and not until I started taking German classes on a college level did I realize that I already knew a few bits and pieces.  A few years later, I took a class in German/English translation. And since I wasn’t the only person in any of those classes, I’m aware that not every American is monolingual as a matter of principle.

If German is not your thing, Winter Witch can be found on Amazon.com in French translation: La Sorciere de L’Hiver.

Gen Con 50

Since Gen Con badges sold out for the first time ever, I was expecting wall to wall people. There were lots of people, but there was also so much to do, in so many places, that the crowds never felt overwhelming. And everyone looked so happy to be there, so the general mood was upbeat and energizing.

Except for an occasional foray into the dealers’ hall and an afternoon spent gaming at the Worldbuilders Party, I spent most of my time at the Writer’s Symposium. It’s a great program, very well run. Some of the panels went better than others, but in general the people who attended asked good questions and seemed genuinely interested in the topics under discussion.  I was particularly impressed with the moderator of the Candlekeep seminar, which was packed with hardcore Forgotten Realms fans. He kept the tone upbeat and enthusiastic–no small feat when you consider that the fiction line has been put on indefinite hold and game products are few and far between. Thanks to the Dungeon Master’s Guild, there is new content coming out, and a lot of the discussion focused on this new(ish) venture.

The highlight for me was meeting people in real life with whom I’ve worked or communiated online–sometimes for years or even decades:  a longtime, hard-working moderator of the Candlekeep forum, several editors who have worked on my novels or short fiction, and a bunch of readers.  It’s a bit of a shock when people with grey hair tell me they’d read my books when they were teenagers, but then I do the mental math and yep, that sounds about right. Elfshadow was published in 1991.  Oy.

This was the first con I’ve attended in several years. Going forward, I plan to be more active in con attendance. Next up: Arisia!  Details to follow.

July writing summary

After several years away from writing novel-length fiction, I’m really enjoying the challenge of creating a new setting and getting to know new characters. That was my primary focus for July, but several smaller works in various stages of development and a surprise invitation to Gen Con filled out the month. Here’s the quick summary:

Publications: 1
Submissions: 5
Acceptances: 4
Rejections: 3
Projects currently in circulation: 4

Work in progress:

  • Writing Draft Zero of a historical fantasy novel, polishing the outline and proposal
  • Brainstorming and plotting an epistolary novella
  • Awaiting editor’s notes for a short story solicited for a shared-world anthology
  • More short fiction in various stages of development, because the story ideas just keep on coming and they will not leave me alone!


  • A paid review of How to Be A Tudor by Ruth Goldman, published in Renaissance Magazine, Issue #111


  • Short story (“Synthetic Sanctity”) submitted to Aliterate magazine 
  • Short story (“Dead Men Tell No Tales”) submitted to Ghosts and Pirates, a reprint anthology by Flame Tree Publishing
  • Book reviews submitted to Renaissance Magazine:
    • Anne Boleyn: The King’s Obsession by Allison Weir
    • The Irish Women’s 16th Century Getting Dressed Guide: Wear What the Renaissance Irish Really Wore by Kass McGann
    • The King is Dead: The Last Will and Testament of Henry VIII by Suzannah Lipscomb


  • “Synthetic Sanctity” was declined by two magazines:  Uncanny and Aliterate.  This is a very odd little tale, so I’m not surprised it’s taking a while to find a home. Six submissions so far. This story might be strange, but it’s persistent.
  • “White Tunic” was declined by a horror story reprint anthology. Again, no big surprise, since the story is closer to fantasy than horror but hey–worth a shot!

Work done in July to short fiction in the pipeline:

  • “Burning,” a short story for the anthology Hath No Fury:  Reviewed copyedits, sent in final version.
  • “Royal Daughters,” a short story for the anthology Swords & Sorceress 32:  Read page proofs, sent in final version.

Writing related:

  • Made last-minute plans to attend Gen Con 50.
  • Brainstorming ideas for a Patreon account

Books read:

  • Griffin and Sabine by Nick Bantock
  • Sabine’s Notebook by Nick Bantock
  • The Golden Mean by Nick Bantock
  • The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Richard J. Davison, PhD with Sharon Begley
  • Anne Boleyn: The King’s Obsession by Allison Weir
  • The Irish Women’s 16th Century Getting Dressed Guide: Wear What the Renaissance Irish Really Wore by Kass McGann

Books reading:

  • Focus by Daniel Goleman
  • How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker
  • The Hidden Lives of Tudor Women by Elizabeth Norton

So. Many. GOATS!

Everyone loves goats!

If you’re going to Gen Con and you’re interested in donating to a great cause, consider the Worldbuilder’s Party, an afternoon of gaming and goats. Lots of goats! Every ticket purchased will provide a goat for an impoverished family, via the wonderful Heifer International organization.

I’ll be tag-teaming with Brad Beaulieu to run the board game “Lords of Waterdeep.” He’ll be running games from 1-3:45 and I’ll be stepping in from 3:45 to 5:00. (Note: Since I’m a late addition to GenCon, I’m not listed among the participants.)

Here’s a link for more information. 

Gen Con schedule!

As of this morning, I have a Gen Con author page and an event schedule.  I’ll also post the schedule to my Upcoming Events page, and update that page as plans continue to develop.

Thursday, August 17:

Friday, August 18

  • 10:00 – Worldbuilding 101. With Richard Lee Byers.
  • 12:00 – Signing. With Margaret Weis, Tracy Hickman, and James Lowder.
  • 1:00-5:00 – Worldbuilders Party.  A gaming event organized by Worldbuilders, Patrick Rothfuss’s charitable organization. I’ll be running “Lords of Waterdeep” from 3:45-5:00.

Saturday, August 19

Constructing the iceburg

Last night, I had a very helpful Skype chat with my son Sean about the outline of my novel-in-progress. He asked a very important question about two of the characters:  “Why are they friends?”

This is one of those tip-of-the-iceburg moments in fiction. When two people from very different backgrounds are close friends who know each other’s secrets, the story of how they got to that place is important, even if it’s not the story currently being told.  So before I can go much further with the w-i-p, I need to sketch out that prequel story, if only in broad strokes.

I’m a history geek, and I believe in the value of knowing what happened and why. A knowledge of history lends insight and perspective to current culture and events. That’s equally true in fiction. Characters don’t simply appear on the page in chapter one. They lived full (if fictitious) lives before they got to this point in their stories.  The things they experienced will form the choices they make during the story-in-progress. I was reminded of this again this morning by a Twitter message from a Forgotten Realms reader. She wanted to know why Danilo Thann, in the novel Dream Spheres, felt such an immediate connection to Lilly, a tavern wench and his half-sister. This is the sort of question writers need to answer during the writing process. For those who are interested, here’s what that process looks like for me.

Family is important to Danilo, in no small part because his own family is so problematic. He’s the youngest of several siblings, most of whom are quite a bit older than he is. That’s isolating. To compound matters, he spent a large chunk of his childhood away from home for reasons that have not been (and will not be) disclosed. The archmage Khelben Arunsun, his purported uncle, played a big role in his life during this traumatic period. Their relationship, though close, has always been fraught. The frivolous facade Dan adopted as part of his role in the Harpers further distanced him from his business-oriented family. So did his interest in music. Musical study, to their way of thinking, was part of a nobleman’s well-rounded education, but there comes a point when a Waterdhavian merchant should pay other people to provide music so he can devote his time to the serious business of commerce and social maneuvering. For these and many other reasons, Dan feels like an outsider in his own family. That’s one of the things he shares with Arilyn. They are two socially and emotionally adrift people who found a harbor in each other.

When Danilo learned that he had a half-sister, he felt the personal impact of all those lost years, when he might have had a younger sister to protect and tease and love. But the more powerful emotion was that he was appalled his father could know of this girl’s existence for all those years, but never support or even acknowledge her. Waterdeep is a thriving, wealthy city, but the lives of the working poor are as difficult and tenuous as anywhere else in the Realms. A tavern wench works long hours. She’s viewed as a commodity and often treated like a whore, and there’s  little prospect of a better life.  Dan understands this, and feels responsible–no, he embraces the responsibility–for his newfound sister. The connection he feels with Lilly is immediate, personal, complex, and very powerful because of who is he, what he has experienced, and what he values.  The reader might not know all the particulars, and probably shouldn’t, but the writer must. Otherwise, the reader is unlikely to feel that a character’s choices flow from anything deeper and more profound than plot convenience.

I wish I could say that I’ve lavished this much thought on all my characters, but the fact is that Dan is one of my favorite fictitious people. He has been with me for over 25 years, and every now and then I still feel his presence, looking over my shoulder and commenting on a turn of phrase, wondering why on earth I sold my lute and never bought another, or critiquing the state of my wine cellar. (A conversation that usually begins with, “Why is it, precisely, that you don’t HAVE one?”)  I enjoy spending time with him.  What I find very encouraging and more than a little exciting is that I’m getting much the same feeling about my current novel-in-progress, and the new fictitious people whose lives are taking shape, both above and below the waterline.