Where we talk about Boundless ⚔️

Here’s one of my world-famous emails, originally send Friday, 12 April 2019. You can get on the list here.

Building New Worlds.

I’ve talked a bit about Boundless, and now it’s time to talk more about it. This week, we’ve got:

  • The writing process – Part One!
  • An excerpt.

Let’s swing that blade.

The Writing Process Part One: Outlining vs. Discovery Writing

There’s a holy war in the writing community, excluding a bunch of people like me who DNGAF. It’s the outliners (sometimes called the death-by-boredom style) vs. discovery writers (unflatteringly referred to as pantsers).

  • Outline writing is what people like James Patterson prefer; you structure your story down to the last minutae, then write it out.
  • Discovery writing is where you start with almost nothing but a bright idea, and start hitting keys until magic falls out the other side. Stephen King lives here.

Me, I use a mix of both, and since we’re starting a new story universe together, I thought I might show you what that crazy mess looks like. Here’s something that speaks to me in the language of my people (clicking any of these should make ’em bigger):

This pretty much describes how I wrote Night’s Favor. No one was more surprised than me when reviews spoke of how well structured it was. I started with a loose idea of what should happen, then wrote it by the seat of my pants. What came out the end was (surprisingly!) coherant and well-structured, but most of that’s down to a) my insane CDO and b) years of running RPGs.

Later stories I spent more time structuring, which made the writing faster. I find having a direction of travel helps a lot, but I still change as needed so the characters can flex. The relationship outline for Tyche’s Flight changed between draft and go-live, because the characters had a mind of their own. Here’s what I started with (dredged up from the archives of two years ago…):

This is a fun stroll down memory lane, not least of which because Hope’s original name was Kate, before becoming Amber Amber (yes, Amber twice) in a brief moment of insanity. Hope’s much better.

I’m a big fan of Dan Wells’ 7-point system. I’ve taught people how to use it, and break it out for just about everything I write. But Boundless is something really new for me – it’s epic fantasy, and I need to learn a great deal about that before I can write it. Not just about what the parts of a horse’s bridle are called, but how characters live and breathe in an epic fantasy setting. I’ve read a hyoooge amount of it, but never written it (…which is true for everything, right up until I’ve written it).

How do I tackle this? First, I spend a chunk of time refining relationship concepts. Here’s a super-early one from beyond the mists of time (also about two years old; I’ve been working on this story for a while):

Which turned into, as of yesterday, something that looks like this:

Aside from wasting time I don’t have on Pinterest, the next step is to try writing something against this to see if it worked. Let’s have a look, shall we?

Boundless: The Prisoner

Here’s a sample of Boundless. This is super-rough! I write it to see if the concepts and characters work. Feel free to not send me your grammar and spelling errata, but I’d be interested in what you think of the ideas.

This might not stay in the finished manuscript at all, but it’s fun to see how the people I’ve made are turning out. Please to enjoy 🙃

* * *

They came to kill a sinner.

The cage’s iron presence rode at Geneve’s back. It was made of good Church steel; cold iron fingers waited to clutch their prize as it rode their creaky wagon. It knew how to carry prisoners better than she did. Two oxen pulled it with a trudging step. She rode her blue roan beside them as the cart made its trundling way toward Calterburry.

She’d named the roan Tristan. He was young and eager for the road ahead, just like her. Vertiline said he prances too much, but that’s how Geneve liked it. Unaware of their grim duty, Tristan tossed his mane, harness jingling like silver bells.

The noise made Israel turn. He led from the front atop a massive charger that looked like it could eat a man whole. Road dirt dusted his tawny skin, but couldn’t cling to the white of his tabard. The Church’s golden sun gleamed gold across his broad chest. He tossed her a lopsided smile. “It’ll be fine.”

“It’ll be a hoax, is what it’ll be,” groused Vertiline from her rearguard position. “The most exciting thing we’ll get here is warm ale.” Her chestnut mare seemed to agree, offering a snort.

Geneve laughed. “Warm ale wouldn’t be so bad. After two weeks of Izzy’s cooking, I need something to take the taste away.”

Israel tsk’d. “You’re young and inexperience. I wouldn’t expect you to know what good food tastes like.”

“She’s not wrong.” Vertiline urged the chestnut past Geneve to join Israel at the front. “Your cooking is a true misery. We used to call it the Lost Trial. Calterburry’s just ahead.”

“Please, let it stay lost.” Geneve craned to see the town as the three rounded a bend. The rutted road swept down before them toward their destination, giving Geneve her first glimpse of Calterburry. Wooden walls ringed a town nestled in a valley. Perhaps a thousand souls called her home. The stone facade of Calterburry Stronghold stood like a stern older brother, peering over the walls.

They were well-maintained, despite the weather here being cool enough to keep most Orks away. Queen Morgan’s lord Symonet had a hard but fair reputation, which made his keeping of the prisoner from the Church surprising. Perhaps the messenger bird went missing. The Justicar tells us to look for mistakes over malice first.

A weak mid-morning sun smiled on them, raising Geneve’s spirits, if not her body temperature. The three Church Knights approached from the north, a river keeping pace with their travels to the west. Geneve didn’t know its name, and struggled to find a reason to care. Their mission was escorting the prisoner to his trial and subsequent death.

She winced. We’re here to see justice done, but he needs to be judged first. It’s why they had a cage. The prisoner was rumored to be a wizard, which is why Israel and Vertiline kept their glass swords ready. Geneve’s metal blade, Requiem, rested heavy against her spine. Cold iron wasn’t as good as glass for killing the wicked, but it made a man bleed out well enough.

Calterburry’s gates loomed closer. They were open, a good sign in itself. Two guards waited outside, leaning on pikes like the weapons held up the sky itself. Geneve shifted in her saddle. She felt a stab of unease as the guards straightened up. Church Knights aren’t a cause for alarm, unless something’s wrong.

“Easy, now.” Israel felt it too, patting the neck of his charger. The great beast tossed its mane, no doubt ready to eat one of the guards.

Vertiline rolled her shoulders. The dust of the road hadn’t dimmed her ghost-white skin any more than her steady, even level of latent ire. “The day’s looking up. We might get to knock some sense into someone.”

Israel glanced back to Geneve. “Stay with the wagon.” He urged his horse ahead, the beast surging toward the gates.

“Does this look like a plan to you?” Not waiting for Geneve’s answer, Vertiline gave chase. The tail of her braid bounced in her wake, her white-and-gold tabard burning in the sun’s light like a torch.

Stay with the wagon, huh? That’s a special kinda bullshit. Geneve curled her lip. Izzy and Tilly looked out for her, but sometimes it rankled. She could swing a blade better than most. But not well enough. You don’t have a glass sword yet.

She gave a grunt, which the oxen ignored. Geneve offered them a glare. I didn’t want your opinion, anyway. It didn’t feel like anyone would try and rush her for a metal cage meant to take sinners to trial, but they taught her to be prepared. The cleared area around Calterburry meant she could see for klicks. There was no one out here.

No one at all. Isn’t it odd that there’s no merchants on this road, or people outside the walls? She squinted to the gate. Israel talked with the guards, gesturing with big gestures. Geneve could guess his meaning. Step the fuck aside, or get stepped the fuck on. Vertiline stood across from the guard Israel wasn’t berating, hands on hips. She hadn’t drawn her sword, but that didn’t mean much. Geneve’d seen Vertiline cut a man in half with a single strike from her glass sword, armor and all. He’d been surprised, mid-tirade, because her sword rested in its sheath on her back a heartbeat earlier.

She drew close enough to hear. Wagon doesn’t need much guarding here. The oxen continued their tread, unaware of the increasing odds of violence. Geneve swung her leg over her saddle, dropped to the road, then hopped up to the wagon’s seat. She grabbed the reins, oxen now appearing to take notice of her. One gave her a reproachful look as she gave a tug, but they came to a halt. She slipped down, patted Tristan, and walked to stand a handful of steps behind Izzy and Tilly.

Israel sucked in a lungful of air, brows closing in like storm clouds. “By the Three! For the last time, you will let us pass. We are Knights of the Church.”

The guard, a man with a too-large nose beneath too-small eyes, hawked, turned his head, and spat. He wore chain armor beneath a tabard sporting the queen’s red dragon crest. “I don’t care if you’re the Three themselves. You can pass back the way you came. Or, you can pass around. You can pass up the opportunity of a warm bed inside, though. By Lord Symonet’s orders, you aren’t passing through these gates.” Each utterance of pass was slow, deliberate, as if he was speaking to a simple child. “Am I being unclear?”

Geneve winced as Israel’s neck darkened in anger. Lips pressed in a thin line, the Templar took a step forward. “We’re here on Church business. Word was sent. There’s a sinner here.”

“Dare say there’s many sinners.” The guard shrugged. “But it doesn’t change—”

“Fire!” The cry rose up behind the guards. They spun, pikes at the ready, as if a piece of steel could cut flames down to size. Geneve saw a thin pillar of sooty black smoke rising from within the walls.

The guard clapped a hand to his helmet. “By the Three, that’s coming from Elean’s Masonry.” He broke into a run, arms pumping, the head of his pike glinting in the sun.

The other watched his companion go, mouth open, eyes wide. Israel cleared his throat. “Elean’s Masonry doesn’t sound so bad.”

“Hah. They break stone with black powder.” He pointed to the dirt. “Stay here.”

“No problem.” Vertiline crossed her arms. They watched the guard sprint off. “Idiot.”

“Get the wagon.” Israel vaulted onto his charger, then nudged the massive beast forward. Vertiline swung onto hers, leaving Geneve to watch sparks ring from the steed’s hooves as they clattered inside.

Get the wagon. Geneve sighed, then hopped aboard the wagon. She gave the reins a flick, wondering at what point being a Knight turned from teamster to warrior. Tristan shook his mane in agreement, prancing at her side as she drove the wagon inside.

No telling where Israel and Vertiline went to, so she drove the oxen to The Yellow Mug. The tavern doubled as a Church stable, paid in good coin to reserve a space for Knights. She had directions. It felt surreal to drive her team of oxen to a pace that sold no doubt warm ale while Israel and Vertiline raced toward danger.

They’re not alone. Villagers hurried in the direction of smoke, many carrying buckets. Fire was always bad, but one where explosives were kept would be devastating. The only thing tethering Geneve to the wagon was the cage, and their purpose. Find the sinner. Bring them back for redemption.

The Yellow Mug’s sign swung ahead. Original: a mug, painted in yellow. Rumors said the tavern was built atop haunted catacombs, which sounded extraordinarily unlikely, but it meant Knights were always welcome. Spirits didn’t like coming into the light. Geneve drove the team through the gates. A short man waddled outside, a mostly-clean apron identifying himself as the innkeeper. Geneve wracked her brains. What’s his name? G-something. Grim? Grimson? She tried a smile. “Gilbert.”

“It’s Gylbard, m’lady.” He gave a tiny bow, smiling. His teeth were so bad it hurt to look at.

“Gylbard!” Geneve jumped from the wagon. She wanted to say, Must be a mistake in our records, but that would be a lie. “Sorry. My mistake.”

“Gilbert’s close enough. Most folk call me ‘That Fat Fucker.’” He chortled, then cut off, as if seeing her Church tabard for the first time. “I, um.”

“You’ve got to admit, Fat Fucker’s memorable.” Geneve grinned. “Basically rolls of the tongue.”

The innkeeper sagged in relief. No telling when you’ll get a Knight high on scripture, or one just wanting a place to rest their feet. Israel said, I never trust a man who won’t swear, and Vertiline elbowed him so he offered, or woman. It was the kind of advice that kept Geneve’s feet on the ground. “Will it be lodgings?”

“It will, Gylbard. Do you mind if it…?” Geneve trailed off, then jerked her head in the direction of the fire. “Best get in before it spreads.”

“Aye, I’ll see to your wagon. Best leave your horse, too. Streets will get crowded, right quick.”

Geneve turned to go, then swung back. Courtesy. “Thank you.” Gylbard offered her another horrific smile, and she returned it before sprinting onto the street, sword clattering against her back.

* * *

Something wasn’t right. Geneve’s first inkling of it was as people passed back her way, looking confused, still carrying buckets.

The second was, as she looked at the now soot-laden sky, she realized she could smell no smoke. The odd hint of wood fire clung to the air as it did in any town, but a blaze of that size should make her dirtier than the road.

You hunt a sinner.

She shored up beside a bakery. Inside, the shopkeeper peered concern at the sky through poorly-made glass. Fire could be the death of a town.

Geneve watched the crowd ebb and flow. People surging this way and that, looking to quench a blaze. Fire can also draw people to a place. Distract the eye and mind both. She marked the place where smoke rose, then turned about, facing the opposite direction. She set off, shouldering through the crowd. Most parted for her tabard, but some were too confused or concerned to pay her much mind. A man bounced into her, bouncing off her breastplate with a clatter. She found her footing, grasping his arm and steadying the man before he could fall to the street.

You’ll never be small, that’s for sure. Geneve offered him a nod, then scrubbed her hair away from her face, looking to the sky again. She was close to the wall. The mouth of an alley led away to the right, so she took it. It’d get her out of the press of people.

Inside the alley, people noise dropped away. The sound of birds filled the air. She thought they sounded like bellbirds, but couldn’t see any. She craned her head, trying to spot one, but saw nothing up high other than walls and closed shutters.

“It’s called Birdsong Alley.” A male voice made her swing her attention down, taking in a young man, lounging against a wall. He had a sparkle to his eyes, a hint of stubble at his jaw, and the kind of nonchalant attitude that made her want to punch him almost immediately. “No birds, though. No one knows why they still sing. Some say it’s a curse, but it doesn’t sound bad.”

Geneve gauged the distance between them. Ten paces, no more. The alley wasn’t wide. Unlimbering Requiem would be a poor choice. Fighting might be a worse one. She lowered the hand that had risen unconsciously to the blade’s hilt above her shoulder. “It sounds … nice.”

“Nice?” He laughed, pushing off from the wall. “I tell you of a flock of ghost birds, forever singing their music, and you say it’s ‘nice?’” He shrugged, pulling a too-worn robe close about him. “Well, enjoy it. I’ll be off.”

He made to walk past her. Geneve grasped his arm above the elbow. “Wait.”

The twinkle didn’t leave his eyes. “Normally, people ask for a name, or a quite drink at a tavern, but if this is how Church folk want to—”

“Why aren’t you helping with the fire?”

“Fire?” He glanced at the alley mouth. She glimpsed his calm facade slip for a second. “Why, that’s where I’m going.”

Geneve tightened her grip. “I think—”

Whatever she thought was lost to the roar of a beast. She spun, dropping her hand from the man’s arm. In the alley behind her a black bear reared, pawing the air. She goggled for a moment, then drew her scattergun in a smooth motion. It carried the name Tribunal, and it spoke with law.

She pulled the trigger, the hard boom of sound silencing the birdsong. The shot blasted through the bear, then… nothing. The bear continued to paw the air. Blood and viscera didn’t blast out the back as expected.

You are here to catch a sinner. Geneve spun, catching sight of the man sprinting for the alley’s exit. She crouched, tossing Tribunal in a spin across the distance. The scattergun tangled in the man’s legs, and he dropped to the cobbles with a grunt.

The bear vanished. Geneve gave a savage grin, all teeth, running after. She caught the man’s panicked stare as he scrabbled back like a crab before finding his feet and running. His clothing looked more worn, his skin pasty and sweaty. She scooped up the scattergun as she went, slotting it back into its holster, then bent her head and ran.

You are here for a sinner, and he got the drop on you. She snarled, pushing herself harder. Her armor was heavy, the bright steel weighing her down, but it wasn’t like she could tear it off. The man wasn’t weighed down by anything, and buoyed up by the fear of imminent demise. It made his feet lighter than air, and she thought she might lose him.

You will not lose him. She put on a burst of speed, vaulting a cart, landing in a clatter of metal. Requiem lay against her spine, heavy, waiting, but running with a sword was foolishness itself. She spied the sinner duck into another alley. She ignored it, running on. Cut him off. A porter stepped in front of her, and she plowed right though him. His burden of boxes scattered as if hit by a horse.

Geneve skidded around the corner of a clothier. Ahead, a small gap between buildings showed the alley’s exit. The sinner backed out of it, looking for persuit, and almost missing her until the hammer of her boots on cobbles drew his attention.

He spun, hand out, but she bulled on. She crashed into him, the full weight of her armor bearing him to the ground. She felt the air and fight go out of him as he landed. Arm across his throat, she reared up, fist clenched and ready to strike. He raised his hands, looking away.

She got a moment to see what she’d missed before. Not just pale, but gray skin. Cheeks sunken and sallow with malnourishment beneath a sparse beard. Fear, no, unbridled terror in his eyes, at the justice that came calling.

He is so afraid. She lowered her arm. He is so afraid of me. Geneve stood, standing a step away. She kept her stance ready, but needn’t have bothered. The sinner’s coat was stained, a rent showing the cost of his temporary freedom. He’d been stabbed. She held her hand out, sunlight reflecting from her burnished armguard. Sinners get a trial, and until then, they deserve our mercy. “Come.”

The sinner glanced about. A small crowd formed about them. Smoke no longer hung in the sky. He ignored her hand, getting to unsteady feet. He glanced about, but saw no escape. Trying for a smile that plastered on sickly rather than friendly, he said, “I’m Meriwether.”

“I don’t care.” She let her hand fall. “Let’s get your injuries seen too.”

“So you can kill me later? No thanks.” He turned, a last burst of energy, and lunged toward the crowd. Geneve thought he might be trying for freedom, but he grappled with a man, snaring a knife. He faced Geneve, fear back in his eyes like it belonged there. “I won’t go to the Three.” He lunged for her.

It was a sloppy, slow strike. She saw it come, stepping to the side with ease. As the blade bit nothing but air, she straight-armed him. The metal plates of her armor collected him in the face, and he slammed into the ground hard enough to make Geneve wince. The knife clattered free.

She bent to collect it, then returned it to its owner. The crowd stirred like a shoal of fish. Geneve sighed, then bent to lift Meriwether. She hefted him like a sack of coal across her shoulders. He felt light, as if the sins had already left his body.

Parting, the crowd opened to reveal Israel striding forward, Vertiline in his shadow. The big man grinned, broad and bright. “Ah. You’ve found our little mouse.”

Geneve settled Meriwether’s weight on her shoulder. “He runs fast for a mouse.”

Vertiline grunted. “Chains will slow him down.” She led off, Geneve and Israel falling in behind. The crowd bled away, disappearing like a bad stain. Geneve was left with nothing but the fragile weight of a sinner, and his blood dripping down her breastplate.

You are here for a sinner, but all you’ve found is a scared man. By the Three, what is this?

That’s it from me this week. Next week, I might bust out a little more detail on maps, character snapshots, or the resources I use. Would you like to see what Calterburry looks like?

Let me know if any of that sounds rad. Until then, keep kicking all the ass you can – it’s making a difference. You’re awesome.


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