Lightning Wolves and the Importance of Setting

This summer saw the publication of my eighth novel, a western steampunk adventure called Lightning Wolves. It’s the sequel to my 2011 novel Owl Dance and continues the story of the Russian invasion of the United States in 1877. You may not remember this seminal period in history, but I can assure you it involved airships, ornithopters, lightning guns, and automata. That’s the steampunk part of the story. The adventure comes from the characters living the experience. There’s Ramon Morales, the former sheriff trying to find new direction in life. There’s Larissa Crimson, a bounty hunter with a natural talent for machines and a desire to make the world a better place. There’s Curly Bill Bresnahan, an outlaw who has stumbled on a terrible weapon he hopes to use for his own gain. Their conflict and interaction drives the story forward.

This brings us to the western aspect of the story and the importance of setting. In a very real way, Lightning Wolves was inspired by my commute to work. If that doesn’t sound very inspirational to you, I should explain that my commute to work starts in Las Cruces, New Mexico, just a couple miles from the site of Billy the Kid’s trial, to a mountain peak on the Tohono O’Odham reservation 50 miles west of Tucson, Arizona. I make this drive once a week. Along the way, I pass through several places both famous and important to the region’s history.

The end of my commute!

I grew up watching Westerns, but I often find history more fascinating than fiction. For example, John Nakayama was a Japanese farmer who settled in New Mexico’s Mesilla Valley early in the twentieth century. He and his family were instrumental in cultivating robust varieties of green chile that are so much a part of both the state’s economy and heritage. It wasn’t hard to imagine a Samurai warrior displaced by the Meiji Restoration starting down the same path a little earlier in the state’s history.

My commute to work carries me by the turnoff to Tombstone, Arizona. Although the gunfight at OK Corral put Tombstone on the map, the region had a rich history even before Wyatt Earp considered moving there. Tombstone was founded by Ed Shieffelin as a mining camp near the San Pedro River, which cuts through rolling land carpeted by chaparral. In my story, the army recruits people from Arizona to fight the Russians in California and Oregon. If this had happened, Ed and his brother Al would have faced difficulties developing their claim when the only people in the area were Apaches and a gang of cattle rustlers who called themselves the Cowboys. Taking one of the mine tours in Tombstone, inspired the idea of the Shieffelin’s working with an inventor to build a machine which could tunnel into rock.

Descending into the Good Enough Mine

The area around Tombstone provided even more story inspiration. Although the Cowboys, led by the Clanton family, are famous from many western movies, not many of those movies explored how they made their living stealing cattle from Mexican ranchers and selling it to the United States Army. On the river’s banks near Tombstone is one of the few standing Spanish Presidios, dating back to the 1700s. The Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate seemed a wonderful place for characters to seek shelter during a sand storm.

My commute to work also carries me through the Council Rocks region of the Dragoon Mountains where Cochise met with General Howard in 1872 to sign a peace treaty. It was known Geronimo frequented this area as well. The Council Rocks are a dramatic formation of yellow rocks strewn over a several-mile area like a natural fortress. It’s easy to see why the Apaches used this area as a stronghold and I knew it had to be the setting for one of the climactic encounters in the novel.

A natural fortress

Setting, for me, is more than a simple backdrop. It can provide inspiration for plot when we pay attention to the kinds of stories that have happened in similar places. Setting can provide inspiration for characters when we look at the people who have been drawn to those places and the conflicts they had. Sometimes those conflicts are with people who want the same land. Sometimes those conflicts are with the land itself. While it’s true that the type of story we want to tell will drive the setting, sometimes it’s fun to start with a setting and see where it leads you.

Lightning Wolves is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords in print and ebook formats.

Assembling Story Collections

My name is David Lee Summers and I’m the editor of Tales of the Talisman Magazine along with three anthologies—Space Pirates and Space Horrors in the Full-Throttle Space Tales series from Flying Pen Press and A Kepler’s Dozen: Thirteen Stories About Distant Worlds That Really Exist, coming this summer from Hadrosaur Productions. I want to thank Melinda Moore for inviting me to be a guest on this blog and I thought I would take the opportunity to discuss the process of assembling a disparate group of stories into a single collection, whether it is a magazine or an anthology.

There are basically two ways one can build a collection. The first is through a process of open submissions where an editor posts a set of guidelines and puts out a general call for submissions, either perpetually or for a limited time. This is what most magazines do, including Tales of the Talisman. The other way to build a collection is for an editor to invite a set of people to send stories in for the collection. I built my three anthologies using this latter approach, but in fact, anthologies are assembled using both techniques.

Most magazines and anthologies have some kind of theme, or at least a general topic they address. For example, my Space Pirates anthology was a collection of stories about piracy away from the Earth. Although Tales of the Talisman sometimes has theme issues, it is generally a magazine of science fiction, fantasy and horror. So, when I’m assembling a collection, I won’t buy anything that doesn’t fit those broad guidelines. That may seem obvious, but you would be surprised at how many people try to send contemporary romance or military fiction to Tales of the Talisman!

When picking a theme, I try to select one that’s narrow enough readers will have an idea about the contents. However, I try not to make the theme so narrow that all the stories will be virtually identical. In fact, one of my goals is to present a wide variety of stories that explore a given theme. Although people who send things that don’t fit a collection’s theme or topic can be a problem, a bigger problem are people who over-analyze that theme or topic. Sometimes writers try to pin me down, asking exactly what I’m looking for. Using the Space Pirates anthology as an example, people will try to find out if I want hard science fiction featuring ship-to-ship combat in interstellar orbit. The answer is sure, but if I buy that, the next story I buy might be more of a space operatic romp and the next one might be a gritty story set on the surface of an alien world. The goal is to explore the theme as fully as possible.

Unless the theme calls for it, I not only look for variety of subject matter, but variety of tone. I like to see darker stories and lighter stories. I enjoy stories that make me cry, laugh or think. A good collection should have a little of all that. With that in mind, if you’re submitting to an open collection, my best advice is to be yourself. Stick to the guidelines, but write the story you want to write that fits the theme for that collection. If you try to fit your perception of an editor’s taste too much, you will probably sound forced and won’t create a story that will be as interesting to the editor.

When selecting people for an invitation-only project, I try to pick a set of people who will give me that variety. So, if you’re invited to anthology, again be yourself. The editor has likely picked you because they’re familiar with the range of your work and wants to see the story you’ll tell on a given topic. There are two ways editors might select people for such an anthology. In my case, I have a large pool of people I know from Tales of the Talisman magazine. If I know you and like working with you from the magazine, there’s a good chance I’ll invite you to send me a story for an anthology I’m assembling. Another way an editor might pick people to invite for a collection is by their reputation. I have approached people whose work I admire for projects. Some have turned me down because they had deadlines or I couldn’t match their asking price for a story, but others have said yes because they found the project interesting. I think it’s important to note that “reputation” doesn’t always mean “a big name”. A person of good reputation might be someone whose work I read once or twice and thought they would have something interesting to contribute to a collection I’m assembling.

As far as actually assembling the collection is concerned, a lot depends on the individual editor, but my approach to assume the reader will read the book from front cover to back cover. Now, I realize many people will skip ahead and read their favorite author first. I can’t help that and I can’t always predict who your favorite author will be. They’ll go in where they fit the dynamic of the book best.

Because I assume the reader is going to read cover-to-cover, I try for some variation. If there’s a sad story, I might follow that with a happier story. If there’s a long story, I will often follow that with a shorter story. I generally try to pick the two stories I consider strongest to open and close the collection. Sometimes, I deviate from that if a particular story serves as an excellent counterpoint or “bookend” to the collection. Even in that case, the very strongest stories will be near the beginning and the end. My goal is to hook you at the outset, but also to leave you wanting to read the whole thing again—or to read the next anthology in the series!

So, to wrap up, if you want to submit to collections, whether they are magazines or anthologies, follow the guidelines carefully.

When dealing with editors, comport yourself in a pleasant and business-like manner. I don’t care how talented you are, if I don’t want to work with you, I won’t ask you to be in a collection I’m assembling.

Write the story in your own, unique voice and tell the story that interests you. This will increase the chance that you will be contributing something unique that will be appealing and not a carbon copy of something else that will be rejected out of hand. Don’t try to write “to the market.”

Send your stories out to multiple markets and send your stories to a given market several times, within any constraints defined by the guidelines. This will increase the chances that you will be seen and asked to submit something to an invitation-only anthology when the opportunity arises.

Best of luck in all your story-writing endeavors!

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