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Thursday, April 28, 2016

Randy Henderson and Finn Fancy - a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary

It was delightful to have Randy Henderson join us to talk about the world of Finn Fancy, despite the technical difficulties we had getting the hangout properly started.

I asked him about the series, and he told us that there were now two books out: Finn Fancy Necromancy, and the most recent release, Bigfootloose and Finn Fancy Free. The third is with his editor, so that means there's more Finn Fancy to come!

In our conversations before the hangout, Randy had mentioned that we haven't talked about Urban Fantasy much on Dive into Worldbuilding (which is true), so I asked him to give us a sense of the way he views the genre. He told us that Urban Fantasy has different "flavors." Mythic and folklorishlike the work of Charles deLint, noirish like the work of Jim Butcher and Kat Richardson, or paranormal romance.

His own take on the genre in Finn Fancy isn't particularly urban, though it still falls under "Urban Fantasy." The stories are set in the seaside town of Port Townsend, in contrast with others who use fictionalized cities. Because of this, he says, there are fewer necessary levels of worldbuilding. The "map level" is taken care of, as is the national and cultural level, along with some aspects of gender dynamics and economics. Where you get to put your attention as an author of Urban Fantasy is in the overlay of the magical world and its properties. You explore the aspects of the magical realm, including hierarchies, power structure in magical communities, etc.

I asked Randy how much research he had done for this series, and he said he'd done very little - but it seems he just feels like it wasn't much compared to other projects he's attempted. He said he'd been writing epic secondary world fantasy, such as one with roman/gaulish culture, but he'd burned out. He started the Finn Fancy series imagining, "me, with magic," and then went from there. Only once it because clear that this was becoming a full book, he says, is when he had to think it through more and shore up the worldbuilding consistency, etc.

I asked him about his choice to use the 1980's as a featured time period in the book. "The 80's are my jam," he said. "That was the era of my youth." It was also a golden era of science fiction and fantasy movies, and advanced Dungeons and Dragons.

The way that the era appears in the book is that Finn has been in exile in the fairy realms since 1986, when he was 15 years old. Meanwhile his body has been occupied by a changeling. Unfortunately, when he goes back, the memory transfer that is expected to occur doesn't happen - leaving Finn in a much older body feeling like a 15 year old from the 80's. In a sense, Randy says, this kind of relation between the fairy world and the real world makes a book like this similar to a portal fantasy. Of course, the moment Finn gets back to 2011, he is framed for another crime, and off we go again.

I asked Randy a question that had been posed in a message by Cliff Winnig. That was to ask Randy about how important family was in the book. Randy said he made a conscious choice to involve family, because he wanted to get away from the "lone grizzled badass" character. He wanted comedic family dysfunction, an ensemble in the style of Arrested Development/ Joss Whedon. That creates lots of potential tension and many storyline possibilities.

The family is a family of necromancers who run a magical mortuary as the family business. Randy wanted to make sure that the hero could not get out of situations by blasting stuff. Finn's power is talking to the spirits of the dead, but it drains his life force at the same time.

This was where we discovered a key piece of research Randy had done - which, it turns out, was repurposed from a nonfiction piece on necromancy he'd written for Fantasy magazine. That's the great thing about real-world research: it never stops being useful! Randy also said he was inspired by a book called The Master of Five Magics, which he called a love story to magic systems. Each system has distinct rules, sources, etc.

In Randy's world, he has the following magic user types:

Wizards - people who can make fireballs and lightning
Thaumaturges - magical inventors
Sorcerers - makers of mind illusions and prophecy
Necromancers - people who can speak to the dead, etc.
Alchemists - people who can activate magical properties of things.

In addition to these human Arcana, he also has Fey, and Feyblood creatures, which are blends of fey plus real creatures. Feyblood creatures include a lot of mythological creatures like centaurs.

Randy said that when he began Bigfootloose and Finn Fancy Free, he had to go further into explaining everything he'd explored in the first book.

Book 1: The Fey realm was something he used to explain Finn's exile, while the feyblood creatures were just there to be cool.

Book 2: Randy had to lay the foundation for this to be a series, and understand the system, the interactions between people and the fey and the feybloods, the power economy, etc.

He says a lot of his insights into how the world worked came from asking "Why would/wouldn't they do this particular magic thing to get out of this situation?"

He sketched a hierarchy of the feyblood, and defined the fey realm and its different demesnes, which include twelve different fey types loosely modeled after many pantheistic archetypes: one focused on wisdom and justice, one focused on cunning and deception, one focused on the arts and creativity, etc.

Randy told us that after writing Finn Fancy, he binge-read the Dresden Files books so as not to cover the same ground. One thing he caught was the phrase "the Merlin" for a powerful magic user, which he had planned to use for himself, for example. As he explains, it's often not stealing when two books have similar elements, but coincidence arising from both books having grown from the same influences.

It's hard to resist the urge to go big with the stakes, Randy says. He wanted to have Finn more concerned with trying to survive, protect his family, find love and build a life for himself than saving the world. We discussed how saving the world can feel big and vague if it doesn't also have personal aspects. Randy said this was one of the things that hurt the Star Wars prequels. The original series had personal duels, but the prequels had no personal stakes, just got really flashy and large in scope without creating the emotional connection. He said that when he was going over the books, he'd say to himself, "No, let's not just have a cool battle scene" - he'd go back in the book and establish a precedent for that battle to occur rooted in personal stakes. Backwards plotting like this can be very helpful in revision.

I asked Randy about the premise of Bigfootloose and Finn Fancy Free. He says it picks up three months after the first book, as Finn goes on adjusting and catching up (slowly) on pop-cultural stuff. By this time, Finn has learned about 1989. To get out of necromancy, Finn starts a dating service for magical beings, and his first client is a Sasquatch looking for love. This leads him somehow to get mixed up in a feyblood rebellion.

Randy said it's hard to write a book a year, though it's a great problem to have. The odd thing is that because he has to keep writing, he's entirely in the headspace for the new book by the time he's having to talk with people about the old book coming out! He says he can see how he's grown as a writer through the process. He is able to think ahead better, and many of the craft mechanics like "don't use adverbs" and "avoid passive voice" and "show don't tell" and even tying plot to character arc come more naturally so more of his brain at writing time is freed up to focus on story.

The third book will be called Smells like Finn Spirit (and yes, Finn will have caught up to 1992 in his cultural explorations!). Apparently this book wraps up an arc from books 1 and 2, and will involve Finn saving the world. It has a large section in the fey realm, which involved more traditional fantasy worldbuilding.

Randy says he loves writing this series because it gets him back in touch with the sense of wonder and joy that he always got out of reading science fiction and fantasy. He is really enjoying the worldbuilding he gets to do. He says he thought it would not be as much worldbuilding as epic fantasy, but actually there is plenty to do!

He urges writers not to write what you think is hot, but to stick to what you love.

We spoke briefly also about writing short stories. Some people say you should start with them, but that's not necessarily true. You can do different kinds of things with short stories vs. novels. They are easier to finish, allow you to explore many characters and genres, and they can help you practice revision etc. in shorter cycles. Randy said he has written a lot of them and they helped him get to the point where he felt safe investing time in novels. The processes are similar but different.

Randy, thank you so much for joining us! It was a great discussion.

Next week we'll be meeting on Wednesday, May 4th at 10am Pacific and we'll be talking about Seasons! I hope you can join us.


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