Research: Even if it Might not be Apparent to the Reader, It’s Still Important

Today I’m hosting a guest post from SF and fantasy author, Terry W Ervin II. I think this is great – I hope you enjoy it.

Research: Even if it Might not be Apparent to the Reader, It’s Still Important
When a reader decides to pick up and read one of my novels, he or she is committing both money and time—valuable commodities that could easily be spent elsewhere. Because of that, I strive to tell the best story I can, which includes doing the necessary research. To me necessary means getting the big things right, along with the small, peripheral ones.

For example, in my debut novel, Flank Hawk, one of the factors that led to the post-apocalyptic setting was a handful of nuclear warheads penetrating the U.S. ballistic missile defense systems and detonating. Pulled from two chapter starts:

Nestled in Cheyenne Mountain, NORAD had been on full alert. Coordinated satellites viewing the earth in the infrared part of the spectrum recorded the demise of one ballistic missile while radars, including the Cobra Dane early-warning in the Aleutian chain and the X-band floating on a nearby platform, tracked the two surviving sub launched missiles as they climbed…

…A battery of six interceptor rockets from silos at Fort Greely in Alaska and four more from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base raced skyward. An experimental tracking and intercept aircraft from the Vandenberg base was already aloft. While it strained for altitude, airmen activated its advanced tracking and targeting systems, and prepared its powerful laser should any warheads survive the kill vehicles housed in the interceptor rockets.

To get it right required hours of research, learning the basics of the US missile defense systems and equipment, capabilities, and locations along the West Coast. Only a fraction of what I dug up and organized actually made it to the pages of the novel, and only to a few paragraphs on a few pages, but the point of research isn’t to show off all the work I did. It’s to incorporate only the necessary details that enhance the story.
Crax War Chronicles RT and RH
As an author, I strive to get it right for the reader, not only for the story, but because the readers out there have varied knowledge and experience. I’d be embarrassed to get an email from a disappointed reader, telling me I’d gotten it wrong—especially something that I could’ve gotten right.

Another example comes from Relic Tech. It’s a science fiction novel that involves some interstellar space travel. One of the things I incorporated was time dilation, which is a phenomenon that occurs as a ship travels through space. The closer a ship comes to approaching the speed of light, the greater the time variation there is between those aboard the traveling ship as compared to planet side individuals.

In Relic Tech, the time dilation was along the lines of minutes and hours, rather than months and years. Still, Security Specialist Keesay (the main character) uses a 20th century watch not controlled by the ship’s chronometer to track the phenomenon. It’s only a minor point in the plot, as Specialist Keesay attempts to predict when the civil transport Kalavar will actually emerge at its destination, as opposed to what’s been told to the crew.

Not only did it take considerable time and effort to research and calculate the time dilation based on the Kalavar’s rate of travel, but it was also important to remain consistent with the distances between the star systems and exoplanets, (only a few fictional) incorporated into the storyline, and how long the actual travel between them would take based on a ship’s speed.
First Civilization Legacy Series FH BS SF

Speaking of exoplanets, for my most recent release, Relic Hunted (the sequel to Relic Tech), I had to do a fair bit of calculation with respect to the distances between star systems, some with exoplanets. The light years from Earth? That information is readily available. The light years between various star systems? Not so readily available information. So, high school trigonometry to the rescue. Find the distance from Earth to one star. Then find the distance from Earth to the second star. Get out a star map, draw lines from Earth to the two stars, measure the angle formed using a handy protractor, and all the data is there to determine an approximate distance between the two stars. Not an exact science, but far better than a random guess and, within the novel, it keeps the time to travel between specific stars and distant solar systems consistent.
All of the above examples (and more) took time, a lot of time—time that some might argue wasn’t really necessary. Nevertheless I did it, the reading and cross referencing, all the charts, figures and calculations, and had some of it double-checked by my former college roommate, who majored in physics and minored in astronomy, and is now a math professor.

Would the reader know if I made it all up? If I remained orderly and consistent, but sort of played a little fast and loose with the rate of travel and distances, and ignored the relatively minor time dilation? Probably not. Would they have cared? Maybe not. After all, I don’t write what might be termed hard science fiction. Nevertheless, I owe it to the reader, to get as much right as I reasonably can. Even the little things, because I believe they add up, giving my novels, such as Relic Hunted, depth, authenticity, and consistency.

Readers willing to invest time and money on my novels? I owe them at least that much.


Bio Pic Terry W. Ervin II for 2015Terry W. Ervin II is an English and science teacher who enjoys writing fantasy and science fiction. His First Civilization’s Legacy Series (fantasy) includes Flank Hawk, Blood Sword, and Soul Forge.

The Crax War Chronicles, his science fiction series, includes Relic Tech and Relic Hunted (his most recent release from Gryphonwood Press).

In addition to writing novels, Terry’s short stories have appeared in over a dozen anthologies, magazines and ezines. Genre Shotgun is a collection containing all of his previously published short stories.

To contact Terry or learn more about his writing endeavors, visit his website at and his blog, Up Around the Corner at



Guest Post – Donna Maree Hanson, Dragon Wine

Dragon Wine Book 1: Shatterwing by Donna Maree Hanson is free in e-book for a short time. As part of spreading the word about Shatterwing, Donna is doing a blog tour and offering a give away of a hard copy of Shatterwing. Winners will be drawn from people who comment during the blog tour. So leave a comment to be in to win.

shatterwingDragon wine could save them. Or bring about their destruction.

Since the moon shattered, the once peaceful and plentiful world has become a desolate wasteland. Factions fight for ownership of the remaining resources as pieces of the broken moon rain down, bringing chaos, destruction and death.

The most precious of these resources is dragon wine – a life-giving drink made from the essence of dragons. But the making of the wine is perilous and so is undertaken by prisoners. Perhaps even more dangerous than the wine production is the Inspector, the sadistic ruler of the prison vineyard who plans to use the precious drink to rule the world.

There are only two people that stand in his way. Brill, a young royal rebel who seeks to bring about revolution, and Salinda, the prison’s best vintner and possessor of a powerful and ancient gift that she is only beginning to understand. To stop the Inspector, Salinda must learn to harness her power so that she and Brill can escape, and stop the dragon wine from falling into the wrong hands.

Dragon Wine Book 2 :Skywatcher, the follow on book is also available in ebook and print.

Thank you for having me on your blog, Alan. You asked me to talk about my inspiration in world building for Dragon Wine.

The inspiration behind the world building in Dragonwine (Shatterwing and Skywatcher)

Dragon wine was probably the first book I worked on where I did quite a bit of deliberate thinking , planning and worldbuildiing. One of the main things I did was have a good think about the fantasy novels I loved and why I loved them. What came to me was that I loved the backstory and ancient technology in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. I liked it more than the front story. So I knew then that I wanted to create a world steeped in history, in old machines and mysterious people who are only known by their relics. I also wanted something alien in there too, like a people who were legend but still existed. I love fantasy stories that have magic and bravery and love so I knew my story had to have those elements. At the same time, things were happening in this world that made me question life, people and what it means to be human. Those things joined in with my creativity to establish a nasty, dark element to the story. Sad that it is reality that gives Dragon Wine its dark focus. Those things like terrorism continue on to this day and I still don’t know how it will all end in reality and in the story. I think the resolution hangs in the balance.

skywatcherThe other consideration for me is that I wanted to create an unusual world something different from the norm. That meant moving away from a pastoral, medieval type setting. I also love science fiction so I created a world that has strong science fiction setting with some SF tropes. The world is dominated by a fractured moon that is in now a dispersed field called Shatterwing. As the people are living in a post-apocalyptic world and have lost their technology and sciences, Shatterwing dominates their mythology. It seemed to me that this thing in the sky would be a source of wonder, fear and superstition. This is further strengthened by the fact that bits of Shatterwing fall down to the planet on a regular basis.

Of course, Dragon Wine has dragons. I can’t really explain why I did put dragons in there. They were just a result of the workings of my mind. I didn’t read other dragon novels and I guess that helped me create something a bit different in the dragons. I did some research into dragons and how they are represented in a number of cultures. My influences for the dragons would have to be film and in my formative years, Godzilla! Also, there is some technology on Margra but it’s a remnant of a former time. Going further back, I have alien technology that’s quite unfathomable and then there is the Hiem. I guess they are kind of space elves when you think about it, but maybe not. However, I love that abandoned city, lost civilisation trope immensely. I remember reading Alan Dean Foster’s Flinx novels when I was young and that’s what I loved about that. The sense of the alien and its impact.

IMG_0916Dragon Wine also has three different distinct forms of magic. There is the magic of the dragons. Their life force is so strong that when grapes are grown in their dung the magic seeps into the wine made from the grapes. It is that wine that keeps the humans from dying off completely. The second type of magic is the magic of Salinda’s cadre. The magic grown from the minds of people that has been passed down since the time of moon fall. It is likely that that magic has a technological basis that has grown over time into something more. The third type of magic is that used by Skywatchers, particularly Garan, to shoot down meteors. The Skywatchers use crystals to focus their power which gives off powerful heat beam to blow up meteors. Why three different types of magic? For me they all represent different things. The dragon magic for me comes from their majesty as beasts. There is probably more to it than that, but that’s the inspiration. Salinda’s magic or the magic of the cadre is something that has evolved over time and it comes from the bearers of the cadre and what part of their essence they contribute to it. I consider this more a ripening of power over time and it’s just coming into its own. The power of the Skywatchers is more earthy. It’s something in them although they think it’s a talent that’s in the crystals themselves.


Social Media and Book Marketing – Advice from Robert Hoge

Robert Hoge is a good friend of mine, a top bloke and a great writer. We were having a conversation with other friends a little while ago and the subject of social media engagement and book promotion came up. Rob is very savvy about that stuff and he promised to put his thoughts on the subject together. When he did, I found I agreed with him pretty much 100%. So, as I know a lot of writers read my blog, I asked if I could steal his thoughts and spread them out for everyone to consume, like a mass picnic of Rob’s brainmeats. He said yes. I told you he was a top bloke. So here you go:

Robert Hoge’s Social Media and Book Marketing Advice

There are a few simple tips for authors trying to get the best from their social media presence.

There are some good guides out there. I like “Your First 1000 Copies” by Tim Grahl but there’s a lot of stuff available on the web for free. Much of this is geared towards non-fiction writing but with some creativity it can be applied to fiction just as easily. You just need to have something to say.

Tip 1

Have something to say. The most important thing you can do – whatever the channel – is create content that is engaging and adds value. The biggest commitment you’re asking from potential readers is not a commitment of dollars; it’s a commitment of time and attention. Reward their attention with smart, funny, engaging content that adds value to their lives and does more than just ask them to buy your book because it’s cheaper now.

Offer value by talking about stuff that relates to your work but isn’t your work. Establish a relationship with people on social media by consistently being interesting and adding value to their experience. Be real. When the time is right ask them to buy (read) your work. You’re creative people. Be creative.

Tip 2

1908138_871371366267410_6973824597014610978_nBe on Facebook. A lot of readers are on Facebook, as are publishers, reviewers and bookstores. If you want to market yourself to readers through social media, you should have some presence there. When you follow the advice in tip one, the network effects are tremendous.

Understand the Facebook algorithm, then stop worrying about it. The Facebook algorithm helps determine who sees what. For fan (non-personal) pages it initially only serves new content to about one-fifth or less of the people who’ve liked the page. Everyone blames the Facebook algorithm for a post only having eight likes but it’s not to blame. Boring posts are to blame. If you post interesting and engaging content that generates likes, comments and shares, Facebook will reward the post by serving it to more readers. Ask questions, post video, post images. Every time someone comments on your post, like it and reply because Facebook recognises that as engagement.

Tip 3

Be on Twitter. Twitter is a great place to converse and its network effects can sometimes be much greater than Facebook’s. All the points in tip one still apply, plus you get to hone your writing skills by making Tweets sing in 140 characters.

Generally though, Twitter is worse at serving content to all your followers than Facebook. Why is that? Well, Twitter is an ephemeral medium and whether you have 20, 200 or 20,000 followers they’re unlikely to all be online at the same time you post your tweet. Often less than 10% of your followers will see an individual tweet.

Check out to start looking at some details of your tweets and what engagement they get. A post on your Facebook fan page remains there for potential new readers to see for quite a while. A tweet will be gone pretty quickly.

Tip 4

If you enjoy other channels, go wild. If you’re great at photos, hang out on Instagram. If you love reviewing, engage an audience on Goodreads. Just be engaging and add value in a way that’s interesting.

I’d discourage you from posting the same content on multiple channels all the time. To me it shows you’re not interested in engaging in a way that suits a particular channel. And if a reader who likes you on Facebook or Twitter decides to checks you out on Instagram hoping to see new content and just sees the same old stuff, do you think they’ll be more or less inclined to follow you on that new channel? By all means, do it sometimes (maybe one post in 10) but doing it all the time is a turn-off. Instead work out how you can leverage different opportunities across channels to serve each other.


Random point 1

Mobile, mobile, mobile. More and more web content is being served to mobile devices. Facebook knows this and Google knows this and they’re already starting to reward websites that are optimized for mobile. Make sure your website and content is optimized for mobile delivery. Google it. [I’m in the process of updating this website to a mobile friendly format right now. It’s really important these days! – Alan]

Random point 2

Don’t market solely on price drops. This is a really common social media error. If a reader can afford to spend $2.99 on a book, they can probably afford to spend $4.99. When you market solely on price you forget the other thing you’re asking the reader to give you – their time. The value of your work is not in its price. Mention a price drop, by all means, but find something else to talk about too. Why should a potential reader think your 93,000 word novel can hold their attention, when your 18 word tweet barely can?

Random point 3

A lot of writers spend a lot of time on social media talking to other writers about writing (ahem). It’s fine networking and chatting with mates. But don’t confuse that with marketing your books. Readers don’t care. It doesn’t count as reader engagement.

Random point 4

My personal experience is that engaging with potential readers one-on-one, in-person or over email is a really powerful tool. It’s not time effective but for me it has been really rewarding and it has helped convert fans to influencers. Just be careful how you invest your time.



72640_471409952930222_934403925_nRobert Hoge has managed social media for the Queensland Government and Virgin Australia. Mostly though he uses it to talk to people about writing, disability and whatever else takes his fancy. He’s written a memoir, Ugly, about growing up disabled and different. You can find him on Twitter and on Facebook.


Plotting and Structure for Cheats – guest post from Ian McHugh

Plotting and structure for cheats (or, how to gaff-tape your cardboard thingy)

angel-dustI’ve banged on elsewhere about the themes that tie together some of the stories in my new collection, Angel Dust, such as my possibly neurotic obsession with the consequences of men failing to be “good men” and (possibly contrarily) my enduring fetish for shiny ladies with wings. There’s also a couple of fantasy worlds that I return to more than once through the book: an alternate Australia where the dreams of the land prey on people and your shadow won’t reliably stay under your feet; and an early steam age faux-Europe, where tax collectors and little girls turn out to be the ultimate bad asses.

Another thing that connects quite a number of the stories in the book is how they were written. In wrestling with the challenges of transitioning from being a “professional” short fiction writer to trying out as a novice novelist, I’ve discovered something about my writing.

What I’ve realised is that my writing has a number of strengths – I can do character, setting, action, dialogue, mood and tension fairly reliably. But, by comparison, I suck at story structure and plot. It’s like I have the full six-pack, but the cardboard thingy that holds it together has gotten soggy and if I don’t put my hand under it, all the receptacles of fermented goodness will fall out the bottom and smash on the path. In short stories, I think you can get by with being weaker on structure and plot if you’re strong enough on the rest, but even in short form it’s something I’ve needed to address.

Some stories just kind of fall out easily by themselves, like “The Wishwriter’s Wife”, which is reprinted in Angel Dust and made the Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror. (It’s also archived online at Daily SF, where it first appeared, so you can try before you buy.) Mostly, though, I’ve realised I need a bit of help.

In high school, my mates had a saying, “Win if you can, lose if you must, but always remember to cheat.” So I’ve developed a number of tricks and tools (cheats) to prop up my plotting and structure – to gaff tape the cardboard thingy of my stories.

My first cheat is planning onto a formal act structure. I’ve adapted my own version, which largely follows the Hollywood 3-act / 4-part structure, but also borrows useful odds and ends from 2- and 5-act structures. Thus:


Click for higher resolution.
Click for higher resolution.

The main caveat here is that short stories almost never use the whole act structure. As a general rule of thumb, they should start no earlier than the ‘inciting incident’, that sets the hero on their journey, and get out as soon as possible after the story problems are resolved – or even as soon as the resolution is apparent.

I don’t always follow that formula by any means. In one of the stories in Angel Dust, I tell the first act and the fourth act and, in between, my protagonist sits on his roof and sulks for a few paragraphs while acts two and three rage below. Another story in the book takes place entirely within acts two and three of the structure, and in other stories I combine, skip or reverse some of the steps.

So, just because I start from a template, doesn’t mean I’m following it slavishly – and writing formulaically. But starting from the template really helps me think through a part of my writing that I’m weaker on.

Something I always do when I’m planning a story is a quick map of my characters’ emotional buttons – what they want, what they need, what they have to lose and what will hurt them the most. (Killing them, BTW, isn’t what will hurt your characters the most. It’s the Princes Bride Rule: “To The Pain!” What will hurt your characters most is not the thing that kills them, but the thing that leaves them alive and in freakish suffering.) Pushing my protagonist’s buttons – and often those of the antagonist and any other major characters – has to be at the heart of the story I tell.

My second cheat for plotting and structure is for generating an actual plot from those emotional buttons (along with whatever idea or conceit I’ve decided to write a story about). This one’s pretty simple: I start throwing random elements at them and see what sticks.

If my idea didn’t already come from a book, then one of those random elements is almost always a book (or magazine or Wikipedia page or somesuch). For the story “Cold, Cold War”, which is in Angel Dust and also archived at Beneath Ceaseless Skies (try before you buy!), it was a photographic history of the Russian Civil War that I found in a bookshop bargain bin. For “Beetle Road”, the opening story of Angel Dust, it was both an issue of National Geographic with a cover story on jewelled scarabs and a book on transcontinental railways that were in the pile on the table at the writers’ centre.

Another randomiser I often use is Georg Polti’s 36 Dramatic Situations. You can find them online here, complete with Random Dramatic Situation Generator and a bonus dramatic situation. I get the top-level situation randomly, then choose the sub-situation that I like the best. (Of all the various models of story archetypes, this is the most OCD – over 300 story ideas, right here!)

My other go-to randomisers are rolling Crown & Anchor dice (any dice will do but I like the pictures) and dealing playing cards to which I apply a tarot interpretation. Then I start associating cards and dice with characters and story events, sticking the characters onto a character triangle and filling in the events on my act structure.

Sometimes I’ll even generate whole stories from random elements, and use the playing cards to generate characters as well as events. “Beetle Road” is one of those, written for a 24-hour story challenge that I ran with my writers’ group, the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild. “Uncle Bob’s Crocodile”, which is too new to be in Angel Dust, but which you can read at Urban Fantasy magazine, is another story that was generated entirely from (a simpler set of) random elements: a friend’s anecdote about his crazy uncle; a page from Luigi Seraphini’s Codex Seraphinianus; and a random object which I forgot about.

“Beetle Road” was the whole kit and kitchen sink – random books, random characters, Polti, dice, playing cards. So, without giving too much away (because only so much of my planning ever survives the actual process of writing, as you’ll see if you read the story) my plan for “Beetle Road” looked like this:

Click for higher resolution.
Click for higher resolution.

Of course, if you’re strong on plot, doing all of this for most stories would drive you nuts. But even if plot is one of your strengths, sometimes you’ll get stuck, and it’s good to have some cheats in your back pocket to help you get unstuck. And if you are like me and not so strong on plot, then over time doing all the stuff that comes from these tricks and tools becomes more and more second-nature, and sooner or later you’ll find you’ve got a pretty solid cardboard thingy to hold your six-pack together.

the beard in memoriumIan McHugh’s debut short story collection, Angel Dust, was a finalist for this year’s Aurealis Awards (and is available here from Ticonderoga Publications). You can find more of his stories, which have appeared in professional and semi-pro magazines, webzines and anthologies in Australia and internationally, at his website. His stories have won grand prize in the Writers of the Future contest and been shortlisted five times at the Aurealis Awards, winning in 2010. He’s a graduate of Clarion West.


Guest post from Gillian Polack – Medieval Military

I’m starting the new year with a guest from Gillian Polack. She’s been here before, has very interesting things to say and has a new book out. Take it away, Gillian.

Gillian Polack
Gillian Polack

Thank you, Alan, for hosting me. I thought I’d talk about the military side of my novel, because I rather suspect that anyone here is more interested in that side of thing than in how I worked out my time-travel technique for my new novel. Let me introduce my novel, however, and maybe me, so that it all makes sense.

I write cosy science fiction and fantasy. Some readers claim it has a bit of horror in it, while others think it’s got a sense of humour. I don’t see it as either humour or horror: I see it as about the stories of individuals. It doesn’t matter how big or small the landscape, my novels are about the small lives of people.

About the same time I started writing science fiction and fantasy (with just a smidgeon of horror and humour), I started becoming a historian. Eventually (meaning about 25 years ago) I became a Medievalist. To achieve this latter, I have many pieces of paper and can be rude in an astonishing number of languages, most of which are rather dead. Everyone but me assumed that it was inevitable that one day I would write a novel set in the Middle Ages. This is one of those circumstances where everyone but me was right, and I am eating so many words that I’ll soon be quite obese.

So, I’ve written a novel set in the Languedoc in 1305 (Langue[dot]doc 1305, published by Satalyte). The thing about the Middle Ages in western Europe is that they were religious, but the whole social system was underpinned by matters military. Knights were important not only in war, but in the legal system, for instance.

I decided to exploit this difference rather than to combat it and try to write modern. I have my modern characters, and one of them is enviably full of modern empathy and snark (my hero!) and the others are maybe a bit more mixed. Those modern characters (my time travellers) gave my readers guys they could  identify with if they wanted, which meant I could be as historically proper as was possible for my Medieval characters and still the book would be readable.

I do a lot of research for my novels. I am research-prone the way some people are ice-cream prone. This means that when I thought “How the heck do I get Medieval military values and how they affect daily lives into a modern novel without it sounding absolute garbage?” I hit the books. “The books” in this case, were some lovely modern studies of Medieval masculinity and a bunch of work on what warfare was and how people dealt when they weren’t fighting and just what it all meant in social terms and how it affected the lives of individuals.

unnamedSix months later, I was a bit more educated. It became really obvious to me that it wasn’t matter of my knight putting down his sword when not at war. He carried his values everywhere. Given the right trigger and he would see a military threat and would take proper action. ‘Proper action’ turned out to be something quite fascinating and shaped the plot. This was what I was after: I didn’t want to superimpose Medieval culture on a plot, I wanted to integrate it so that the plot could only happen the way it did in that place and at that time.

This is when Langue[dot]doc 1305 became my kind of novel, where the landscape plays its own role and the cultures of the characters informs what they do and makes events happen. I love the potential uniqueness of novels.

There was an odd side to this. I had to be honest to my Medievalist self and not push for war when there was none. It turned out that there was no big military action. In fact, it’s the least action-related time travel novel I’ve ever seen. It turns out that Medieval masculinity and a military culture doesn’t mean battles and fighting all the time.

One day I should put my research bibliography on the net, in case anyone wants to explore this for themselves. Not yet, though. I want the novel to be read on its own terms, first.

Gillian Polack is a writer, editor, historian and critic. Recently, she signed up seven novels with Satalyte: Langue[dot]doc 1305 is the first of these. Gillian’s second novel Ms Cellophane was recently republished by Momentum and was shortlisted for a Ditmar, as was her anthology, Baggage. One of her short stories won a Victorian Ministry of the Arts award and three more have been listed as recommended reading in the international lists of world’s best fantasy and science fiction short stories.