Saturday, September 21, 2019

Examining the Story Starters for My Science Fiction Romance Novels

Our topic at the SFF Seven this week is our most frequent story starter -- idea, milieu, character, theme, what-if, trope, editor request, etc.

As usual, I don’t think I can break this down into a neat answer. Right off the bat let’s eliminate writing to market (what’s currently hot in other words), which I never do, or writing something in response to an editorial or agent request. I don’t have either of those individuals. (Yes, I hire freelance editors to do  edits on my books but it’s not the same as an editor at a traditional publishing house telling an author what they’d like to see written for a contracted book.)

My mantra is pretty much “I write what I write and I write what I like to read.” Fortunately for me, there are quite a few wonderful readers out there who seem to also enjoy the way my Muse works in crafting stories! Thank you, readers!
Now that we’ve cleared up those issues, back to the topic of what inspires me to write any given novel.

Looking over my backlist in order to write this post, apparently the majority (not all) are situation-driven. My first ever published science fiction novel with romantic elements, WRECK OF THE NEBULA DREAM, is basically “Titanic in space…” as one reviewer said, inspired by the events of the Titanic’s sinking, but set in the far future, on an interstellar luxury liner. So I had the basic story idea and then I worked to identify who the hero would be (a Special Forces soldier) and why he was on the ship at all. The same for the heroine (a businesswoman) and all the other characters.

STAR CRUISE: OUTBREAK - what if there was an epidemic on an interstellar cruise ship? STAR  CRUISE: MAROONED  - what if a group of passengers went down to a planet for a day and were suddenly abandoned?  The Alien Empath series, like DANGER IN THE STARS – what if alien empathic priestesses from a less advanced planet were kidnapped by the interstellar crime syndicate and forced to commit crimes? TRAPPED ON TLANQUE – what if an Ancient Observer was left behind by her people thousands of years ago, and still sleeps in stasis?

In each case, the situation leads naturally to who the characters need to be and what kinds of things will happen over the course of the novel.

My award winning science fiction romance series Badari Warriors (Sectors New Allies) started as a situation – genetically engineered soldiers held captive by the alien scientists who created them and now joined by an entire colony of humans, kidnapped by the same scientists for experiments. The books within the series are now driven by the main character for each book and what adventure that person will have, as well as the overarching series arc I have going on.

One standalone novel, MISSION TO MAHJUNDAR was sparked in part by two photographs.  Here’s what I said in a post explaining why I wrote that book: “First, in college one of my best friends was an amazing woman named Cheryl, who had been blind since birth. I’d never known anyone who was blind, prior to meeting her, and Cheryl was awe inspiring, amazing in her refusal to accept any limits. She taught me many things, particularly how to use the other senses when one sense is denied. I always wanted to honor Cheryl by imbuing a character with her spirit and determination. …one day I saw a photo of a windswept, abandoned temple, standing alone on a plateau, somewhere in the Middle East. The image remained with me and I pondered – as one does – what adventure would bring people to this remote location and what would happen to them there. What would they be seeking? Would they find whatever they needed? This became the temple of the Mahjundan Ten Gods, where Shalira must go on her wedding journey, to seek a key to her mother’s long-closed tomb. ..Third, and this was the key thing that put all the other elements together in my mind and set off the plot, I happened across a perfume ad in a magazine. The illustration was very dark in tone, with a woman in a purple-and-gold hooded cloak holding a beautiful crystal bottle that glowed golden. The light from the bottle illuminated her face. And I thought, that’s it! That’s Shalira inside the tomb. Then I needed to know who would be there with her…and my Sectors Special Forces soldier, Mike Varone, told me he would be, of course!”

Sometimes my novels are inspired by the character. Looking over the list of 35 or so books, that seems to happen mostly when I want to write a sequel. As with HOSTAGE TO THE STARS, the sequel I wrote for Johnny, a secondary character in MISSION TO MAHJUNDAR where it was already established he was a Special Forces operator.  Here’s what I said in my “why I wrote” post: “Johnny had more story to tell… the good friend and loyal team mate, but I kept wondering what he would do after the adventure ended, he really was out of the military service and back on his home planet. Turns out he was restless, unable to settle down and plagued by flashbacks. I’m very fond of Johnny and I hated leaving him at loose ends like that.  He needed something to draw him out of ordinary life and provide him a new focus. A way to transition into the new chapter of his life, if you will… So I thought what if Johnny was put in a situation where he had to return to active duty for reasons (no spoilers here), to accompany a hostage rescue team, and then there were complications? So the team goes in, locates the woman they were sent to extract, and only then learns of another woman prisoner from the Sectors. The team leader refuses to go after this second person and Johnny – of course – sets off to find and rescue her by himself.

The situation was much the same for Khevan and Twilka, two survivors of the WRECK OF THE NEBULA DREAM, which readers had been asking about since WRECK first appeared.  My notes: “Once I had my cup of tea ready, removed the cat from the table and concentrated on just Khevan and Twilka, it hit me like a lightning bolt that I wasn’t interested in telling the story I had in mind. OK, that’s a bad thing LOL. So I tried to turn the entire concept inside out in my head. I asked myself what happened to the real Titanic survivors who were Twilka’s equivalents – rich, society people who didn’t lose loved ones on the ship. They pretty much went on with their lives. As I said to myself, you don’t normally have two Titanic-level events in one lifetime. (Unless you were ship’s crew but that’s a different story.) So what would Twilka have done with her life, if she and Khevan weren’t together? And of course, WHY wouldn’t she and Khevan have stayed together? That’s the key question - was it only their wildly different life styles and places in Sectors society? Or?”

A few of my stories are created based on the need for an alien pet. Four years ago, my friend author Pauline B Jones and I started the Pets In Space® annual anthology of all new SFR, with the goals of supporting a worthy charity, Hero-Dogs, Inc., and hopefully garnering new readers in the process. PISA4 releases on October 8th by the way and can be pre-ordered here

So each year I’ve had to ponder what alien pet I want to write about and then what the storyline will be. So far all the stories occur on my Nebula Zephyr star cruise liner.  Here are my comments on why I wrote last year’s story, STAR CRUISE: MYSTERY DANCER: “I started with the concept of the pet because that drives my plot for these PISA adventures. For some reason I kept seeing a mental picture of a Siamese cat, but with a third eye. But I’ve done a cat and a catlike alien before, for PISA1, although Midorri, the alien pet there actually is kind of a cross between a red panda and a tribble who acts like a cat. So I wanted something very different and I started thinking about what if the cat wasn’t actually a real animal at all? I ended up making F’rrh a ‘jenfellini’, which is something like a genie, living in a beautiful lacquered box. Visualize the gorgeous painted boxes that come from Russia.

Then, the tenuous link to Russia reminded me of the whole tragic story of the last Tsar and his family, and how they were murdered but for years rumors persisted one of the children might have survived. Various individuals claimed to be ‘Anastasia’ or another of the siblings, and of course there have been movies and plays written with that theme. I always flash back to the version with Yul Brynner (such an intense actor) and Ingrid Bergman because that movie was one of my mother’s favorites and also left the answer to the question of “Is she or is she not Anastasia?” somewhat open at the end. My daughters loved the animated fantasy version of the tale, with the voices of Meg Ryan and John Cusack, when they were growing up.

So I had the heroine – a possible princess on the run – but how could she fit into the Nebula Zephyr? Since the hero would be one of the former Special Forces soldiers who make up the ship’s security force, I had to be able to make the two interact and fall in love in a situation fraught with danger and suspicion.
I’ve wanted to do a story about the Comettes dance troupe which performs aboard the cruise liners since I wrote my very first published scifi romance, Wreck of the Nebula Dream (a sister ship of sorts to the one I write about nowadays). Dancing is a skill a maybe princess might have at a high level, right? So let her be a new member of the dancers….throw in a fabulous jewel and we have the story!”

So there we have it, a closer look at what kicks off a story in my mind and how the various threads come together to create a plot!