Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Things Writers Do

Last night I was googling bizarre lethal animals, stinging plants, and weird parasites. Why was this, you ask? (Yes, yes, I know you didn't. Shut up. You're interrupting my rhetorical flight of something or other.)

The short short version - I needed all sorts of interestingly nasty ways to kill people. If there's a forbidden zone chock full of lethal everything, then it's a plot necessity that Ye Writer's characters will need to go either into or through it. If there are other characters with them, it's equally necessary that the other characters die. Unpleasantly, of course. The technical term for this is a writer-cookie, also known - to me at least - as a redshirt-with-extreme-malice (I do take special requests, as my friends know).

It's a very specialized form of writer-voodoo. I snapshot the person I'm going to kill with a little thumbnail portrait, maybe only a line or two, and sometimes a name that's derived from the original's name. Then I kill them in interesting and gruesome ways. Sometimes repeatedly. My manager has been killed twice now, and oddly enough he becomes easier to deal with each time I kill him (No, he has never read anything I've written. No, you can't tell him. It takes all the fun out of it.)

In any case, my forbidden zone was there anyway, there were some fourteen people going to die there anyway, four of them minor characters who readers are hopefully going to care about a little bit, the others servants along for the trip more or less (Yes, it does make more sense than that. No you can't read it yet. I'm still writing it.). It's with the others that I get to have fun and do the redshirt-with-malice thing to people who've managed to irritate me.

Why do I insert people I know who have pissed me off? (No, "piss" is not a rude word where I grew up. It's 'earthy'). It's therapeutic. I get to have fun researching bizarre and horrible ways to die and I get to let off steam by putting someone I'm angry with in the role of Ensign Cannonfodder and writing their horrible death.

The bizarre parasites, biting trees, and other nasties got to be featured because this particular book is set in a far future where the bio-engineered war tools have gone on to reproduce and evolve, assisted by said war putting a very hefty dent in the unmodified human population worldwide. Sites where the biolabs were, or where nuclear weapons were used, are still, centuries later, uninhabitable. And the rest of the world is more or less feudal, but the rulers are the descendants of the saner modified humans. Not surprisingly, they got names that reflected what kind of mythical critter they resembled most, so there are dwarves (short, muscular, able to smell metals and rare earths - optimised for finding and mining deep underground deposits), elves (pretty, charismatic, telepathic, and capable of controlling other people's minds as well as reading them - all very handy for spying), vampires (who absolutely do not sparkle and are more or less one of the less ethical faction's version of elves) and... well. You get the idea.

What this piece looks like - and will probably be marketed as when I get that far - is "epic fantasy with vampires". The war that created them isn't even legend, it's completely lost. The bio-enhancements are regarded as "magic" or "gifts from deity" depending on culture. And of course the forbidden zones are terrible places where evil magic happened so long ago their legends merely hint at it.

The fun part for me is finding workable reasons why someone would have engineered something like this and how a culture where pure humans are very much an inferior race somewhere between animals and "real" people might evolve. I'm going to end up exploring several variations on that evolution as I write the books - which means I've been digging into history, sociology and evolutionary theory as well, although it lacks the 'cool' factor of bizarre lethal plants and animals.

In all probability the only part of the research that will be visible in the finished book will be the forbidden zone stuff. I made a deliberate choice to avoid the standards like giant spiders, and go for the kinds of nasties that aren't all that common. Things like the tree whose leaves are covered with microscopic silicon needles that release a neurotoxin painful enough to kill (Rowena, Chris, you've probably heard about the Gympie Stinging Tree) and whose shed needles stay actively toxic for at least 100 years. Or the bird whose feathers and beak are coated with the same basic poison the poison dart frogs secrete (A New Guinea native bird).

As I've learned - repeatedly - from the virtual "PTerry was here" signs all over odd branches of history, you don't need to make this stuff up. It's already out there. Two of my big writer-cookies are finding the stuff, and making it happen to someone who's got on my nerve (I only have one, and it's rather sensitive).

What are your writer-cookies? And what are the things you do when you write just because you like it?


Anonymous said...

I'll write (what I hope are) really kick@$$ action sequences. Then I try to write a stories around them to justify the scenes. I call them my "Michael Bay Moments." Usually I can't pull it off, but I do save them in hopes of incorporating them somewhere else.

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah. Bloody sword fights, generally from horse back, with added magic.

And I like to work out weird reasons for situations I read about in books.

Vampires? You know, it's really, really unfortunate that we've got so many vampire fans around just as genetic engineering is teetering on the brink of practicality. You _know_ there are going to be Goth Clubs that work on how to grow fangs and so forth.

Now dragons, how are we going to design dragons? Horses for the general rideability, Crocodiles for the scales, bats for the wings . . . there are going to be some damn scary prototypes "accidentally" released from labs . . .


Da Curly Wolf said...

Interestin tidbit for ya. You did know that the poison dart frogs only have that toxin, because they eat the insects, that eat the plants, that make the toxin in the first place right?
Bet the bird has a similar story. probably eats the poison dart frogs.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Kate, this is all part of the 'Secret life of Writers'. We are odd people and only fellow writers can really get us.

Enjoy your red shirt mayhem!

Kate said...


As someone who totally sucks when it comes to action, you have my admiration :) I couldn't write a prod buttock action scene, much less anything more potent.

Kate said...


For dragons, you'd probably want to start from the scaled bird perspective and add fangs, make the wings more batlike since there aren't any feathers to catch air currents... And probably a small internal nuclear furnace to generate heat. They might have to use super-heated air for lift rather than wings, if they're big enough to carry people...

Er. Sorry. Off on a wild tangent there.

Goth clubs growing fangs I can live with, so long as they're not actually trying to bite my neck. Stuff that's fun to play with in books is very much not fun in real life.

Kate said...

Curly Wolf,

Yeah, I know. Those beetles must have been around for a good long time since they're in South America and Papua New Guinea.

I was good. I decided I probably shouldn't use a variant on the very small, very thin fish which has spines that means it can go in to small crevices, but not back out... The colloquial name for that fish refers to a specifically male part of the anatomy, and the fish has had to be surgically removed from said anatomy. I didn't find anything saying whether the anatomy was still usable afterwards, though.

Er. Shutting up now.

Kate said...


Absolutely! We writers live in the strangest places in the universe - the insides of our own heads.

Anonymous said...

I dunno. Birds, especially parrots, could make some really flashy Quetzalcoatl, crossed with snakes. But for a dragon, I'd say bat, and if you don't want to start big, perhaps a dog rather than a horse - although the wisdom of sticking to a herbivorous plan when designing a critter this size who can at least fly well enough to be really, really, hard to fence in cannot be over emphasized.

Da Curly Wolf said...

you can use the fish..just keep them away from ME. Yes I know the fish you're refering to. *shudder*

Chris McMahon said...

Inspiring stuff, Kate. Now I want to find out new ways of killing people. In fact I have a little snapshot here . . .

I love action - sucker for it. But the setting, character and build up have to be right, which is the hard part.

It had become a regular occurance in our house. 'Chris, dinner!'

'Not now - I'm in the middle of a battle scene.' :)

Anonymous said...

Chris, LOL.

"Not tonight Dear, my Sasquatches are in the middle of infiltrating the Secret Army Base."

Kate said...


Indeed. It's really not a good idea to make something that sees you as 'dinner', or worse, 'light snack'.

Not that that would stop some people trying, of course.

Kate said...

Curly Wolf,

This is why I decided I probably shouldn't introduce it. No sense giving all my male readers a bad case of the horrors ;-)

Kate said...


Absolutely. Once I'm in the zone and I have everything flowing I really hate to get dragged out of it. "Just let me finish this battle, and I'll be right with you."

Kate said...


LOL! That is so true! Although in my case it's usually, "Not tonight, dear, I've got too many people to kill."

John Lambshead said...

Fortunately, I am not superstitious at all, touch wood.