Killing Characters in Novels: Red Shirts or Dead Ponies?

Many years ago, I read a short story in school about a kid and his favorite pony. Bad stuff happens to the pony and the kid goes through herculean efforts trying to save it. In the end, the pony dies and the story was very depressing. I think it may have been a classic written by a famous author, but I’m not sure. After all these years, I don’t really remember much about it, except how much I disliked it.

I disliked it so much, in fact, that some of my friends and I started referring to the unnecessary death of a main character or a sympathetic supporting character in a novel as a “dead pony.” For example, if a fantasy author kills off a main character for no other plot reason than to show that the villain is a bad guy, that’s a dead pony. The author could have chosen other ways to signal to the reader that the villain was bad.

To this day, I still dislike dead ponies in novels. If I am warned that an author tends to kill main or secondary characters, I generally avoid reading that author’s books. (You can probably guess which immensely popular fantasy series of the past few years I did NOT watch on television.) While a character’s demise may occasionally be an integral part of a plot, gratuitous character deaths always annoy me. (One of my friends refers to those as “murder by author.”)

(And, by the way, I am only talking about fantasy novels. Other genres are very different. You can’t write a murder mystery without a murder.)

There is, however, one exception to my opinion about dead characters in fantasy novels. One type of character death does not trouble me – the death of one or more “red shirt” characters.

I assume that most of my audience is familiar with what I mean by that term, but just in case, let me explain. The name comes from the original Star Trek series. When Kirk and Spock beamed down to a dangerous planet, there was often an unnamed security officer or two who went with them. When the monster attacked out of nowhere, it would kill one or more of those security guys, putting the main characters on notice that bad things were afoot on that planet. Star Fleet security personnel always wore red shirts in the original series (hence the name “red shirts”).

When I started preparing for this week’s blog, I thought about red shirts versus dead ponies and the differences between them. What makes some character deaths in a novel more troubling than others? Here are a few of my thoughts:

The primary difference has to do with the level of investment the reader has in the character. Those security officers in Star Trek sometimes were not even given names. They had no backstory, no relationship with the main characters, and nothing to distinguish them from the scenery. While their deaths were troubling (just as any death is troubling), there was nothing to disrupt the narrative or cast a shadow over the rest of the tale.

Dead ponies, on the other hand, have a strong connection with both the other characters in the story and with the reader. In the pony story I mentioned above, you agonize with the kid as he’s trying to save the pony and you feel for both of them – the kid and his pet. When the pony dies, the disappointment hits hard for both the character and the reader.

The line between red shirt and dead pony can be a thin one. In the Lord of the Rings, King Theoden’s door warden Hama starts out as a very minor character, but quickly crosses the line when he supports the heroes at the risk of his own job. I felt bad when he died, far more than I would have for a standard minor character.

Another difference between red shirts and dead ponies may involve reader expectation. When my family used to watch Star Trek back in the 1960’s, my father always called the red shirts “expendables.” As soon as they showed up in the scene, there was an expectation that something terrible would probably happen to them in order to facilitate the story.

Likewise, when a book or movie opens with an old mentor and a young hero, a reader knows not to get too attached to the old mentor. The expectation is that he will die before the story ends, sometimes to start the young hero on his journey and oftentimes while saving the young hero’s life. It happens so often that parodies have made fun of it.

The impact of a character death may also depend on when it happens. Character deaths near the beginning of a novel are often less troubling than those that occur later. At times, a fantasy novel will have a “shake-up” event at the outset of the book that propels the story forward. As a reader, I try not to get too attached to characters until after that time of uncertainty ends and the main characters are established.

Finally, the impact of the death may depend on how the other characters in the story react to it. In the Lord of the Rings, for example, I was less troubled by Theoden’s death than I was by Hama’s, even though Theoden was a far more significant character. Why? Because the other characters told us not to be upset about it — they all talked about how Theoden had done a great thing and kept his oaths, etc.

Anyway, those are a few of my thoughts. I’ve already gone on a little longer than I usually do in a post, so I should probably end here.

Talk to you next Friday!

-Susan 9/10/2021

Writing Inspiration Destination: Granada, Spain

(Note: as mentioned in an earlier blog post, one of my friends suggested that I write about some travel destinations that had a direct influence on my writing. This is part 5 of the series.)

Have you ever wanted to visit a place because of a song? Recuerdos de la Alhambra is one of my favorite pieces of classical music. While I admit that we did not travel to Spain solely because of music, I was delighted when our tour of Spain included the city of Granada and the magnificent Alhambra palace.

Granada is a charming city, with its mix of Spanish and Moorish architecture. The artwork inside the Royal Chapel (Capilla Real de Granada) is particularly beautiful.

Statuary near the tomb of Ferdinand and Isabella within the Royal Chapel.

The Alhambra palace is the crowning jewel of any visit to Granada. While the ornate columns and delicate latticework of the buildings could certainly inspire an author, the gardens really captured my imagination. I wandered in wonder amidst fountains, reflecting pools, and archways.

A lovely reflecting pool in the Alhambra gardens.
The archways formed of greenery were both fascinating and beautiful.

Those delightful gardens have not specifically appeared in any of the fantasy novels John and I have written, but they certainly helped inspire some of the outdoor scenes in 60th Hour, particularly the canopied trellises on the walkway leading up to the temple.

Those of you familiar with Granada, may be wondering why I did not include a photo of the iconic lion fountain in this post. To be honest, the pictures I took did not come out very well. I was using 35 mm film back in those days, so I could not check the photo quality until I returned home from the trip. (Digital photography makes everything so much easier!)

And, by the way, while I may not have visited Granada just because of a song, John and I have traveled to two other cities for that reason — Benson and Winslow, Arizona. Anyone around my age is probably familiar with the song reference for Winslow, but I wonder how many of you remember the song about Benson?

Talk to you next Friday!

Susan 9/3/2021

Time for a Second Edition

If you are an Indy author who just published your latest book, should you consider a second edition of your original novel to clean up the formatting problems with the first edition?

In my case, the answer to that question is easy: Yes. John and I are currently finalizing a second edition of the paperback version of our novel 60th Hour to correct a lot of annoying formatting glitches.

At the time we published 60th Hour last year, neither of us really knew how to prepare a book for publication. We had contributed to the Emerald Cove short story anthologies, but others had done the actual formatting of the manuscripts for the ebook. The anthologies were never released in paperback.

In the beginning of March 2020, John and I decided to try our hand at self-publishing. I took the various “Kindle University” video classes and learned about the steps necessary for publication. We decided to release our first novel in both ebook and paperback formats.

The Kindle edition of the book (the ebook) turned out to be fairly easy to produce. Because the reader of an ebook can change the font sizes to make them larger or smaller, the manuscript requires special formatting. Amazon has excellent tools to produce that kind of novel. All you have to do is plug in your manuscript, follow some directions and suddenly you have an ebook. (All right, I’ll admit that the process was not quite that simple, but overall it was straightforward and the tools provided worked very well.)

Likewise, the KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) book cover creator was both easy and fun to use. I am no artist, but I had a great time playing with various ideas for the cover.

Kindle University also has detailed instructions for how to format a paperback, but in March 2020, those seemed long and complex to me, especially given the ease of producing an ebook. When I discovered that I could upload the same ebook-formatted manuscript to use for the paperback, I jumped at the chance.

Sadly, that was my first mistake. A different paperback book might be just fine using the ebook formatting, but 60th Hour had a few quirks that made publishing especially challenging.

In particular, many of the early chapters of the manuscript had been written in the 1990’s using WordPerfect software, not Microsoft Word. The chapters were later converted to Word and the remainder of the manuscript was written in various versions of Word, but the conversion apparently left some hidden formatting within the text. As soon as that manuscript became a KDP paperback, those hidden commands caused extra spaces to appear at random intervals between some of the paragraphs. In addition, all the “widow/orphan” protection disappeared, so it was possible to have the final page of a chapter contain only a single sentence or a few words. While those glitches did not keep someone from reading the paperback version of the book, they were obvious and annoying.

My second mistake was that I did not order a “galley proof” of the paperback book to review before publishing. A lot of the formatting issues were present when I reviewed the uploaded manuscript on my computer screen as part of the publishing process. However, I naively assumed that the problems were because of the video nature of what I reviewed and that they would be gone when the physical paperback book came out. Had I taken the time to order a galley proof and review it, I would have realized that all those formatting glitches remained present in the paperback book. What I had viewed in that video version was exactly what was printed in the paperback.

For the past year, I had intended to produce a second edition of 60th Hour, but it was never a high priority. Then, when John and I published Prophecy’s Malignant Son in July 2021, I discovered that people were buying the paperback version of 60th Hour. Suddenly, those embarrassing formatting errors became important again.

So, John and I started the process of preparing the second edition of the book. This time, we are doing it right — I am following all of Amazon’s guidelines for formatting paperback books, and I ordered a galley proof copy which should arrive tomorrow.

With luck, the second edition will be finalized and ready for publication next week.

Then we get to start a whole new experience….(drum roll)….trying to advertise our two books on Amazon. Wish us luck!

Susan 8/27/2021

Writing Inspiration Destination: Balboa Park

Balboa Park’s Botanical Building and surroundings. (Apologies for the photo quality — it was scanned from a photo taken in the mid-1990’s.)

Sometimes, you don’t need to go any farther than your own hometown for writing inspiration. This becomes much easier, of course, when your hometown happens to be a major tourist destination with beaches, parks, culture, museums, and other fascinating places to visit.

Balboa Park’s iconic California Tower.
The Organ Pavilion, a beautiful location for outdoor concerts.

I grew up in San Diego County, and it is still one of my favorite places in the world. Balboa Park, in particular, has inspired my writing in the past, and continues to do so. Given its beautiful Spanish-style architecture, paths winding beneath the eucalyptus trees, lovely gardens, and wonderful museums, the park’s ability to inspire the written word is not surprising.

What did surprise me is how few pictures I have taken of the park. When I sat down to write this blog post this morning, I thought my task of finding park photos would be easy. Instead, I discovered that, despite hundreds of park visits over the years, I have taken fewer pictures of Balboa Park than I have of Disneyworld in Florida.

Walking near the House of Pacific Relations International Cottages. The last time I visited the park, it appeared that they were expanding this area to add more cottages.

Balboa Park is especially relevant to my writing at the moment, because of Emerald Cove’s upcoming shared-world anthology. Until we have an official publication date, I don’t want to say too much about the book, but Balboa Park definitely makes an appearance. The writer’s group is meeting tonight, so I should know more very soon.

In the meantime, I leave you with this silhouette of the park, taken on a December evening many years ago. I will never forget that night, with its clear skies and beautiful weather, because I flew out to visit relatives a few days later, and ended up in a snowstorm. (It was quite a contrast for a Southern California girl.)

Talk to you next Friday!

Susan 8/20/2021

Writing Inspiration Destination: Santorini, Greece

(Note: as mentioned in an earlier blog post, one of my friends suggested that I write about some travel destinations that had a direct influence on my writing. This is part 3 of the series.)

A writer of any genre could find inspiration on the Island of Santorini, with its beautiful villages scattered above the cliff sides. The whitewashed buildings, the stone walkways, and the magnificent ocean views all give Santorini a special charm. The island even has its own black sand beach.

As a fantasy author, I found my greatest source of inspiration while visiting the archaeological site at Akrotiri. At some point in antiquity, a volcanic eruption buried the region. Some scholars have speculated that a distant echo of the event might be the source of Plato’s Atlantis dialogue.

The remnants of the volcano rise within the midst of the watery caldera.

While I am not a historian and certainly not qualified to speak about any possible ties to the Atlantis legend, there is no doubt that Akrotiri is a fascinating and almost mythical place. Unlike the stark brightness of other ancient sites, Akrotiri sits in a warm twilight beneath the modern, roof-like coverings that protect it from the elements.

The ruins are amazingly well preserved. Pottery and colorful wall murals survived the volcanic cataclysm (and can be viewed in the nation’s museums). As you walk through the site, you can easily visualize the people who lived there in the past.

My imagination can run wild at times. (I guess that’s why I like to read and write fantasy.) The first time I saw this broken staircase, I was both fascinated and a little frightened by it. What titanic forces cracked those stones in two? If people were present to witness the event, what terror must they have felt?

That broken staircase appeared in one of the early drafts of 60th Hour, in a scene describing how Len Cranford found the book that Aubrey stole. The scene was cut out of later drafts, because it didn’t really add to the narrative and worked better as “backstory.”

Even if the cracked staircase itself did not end up in the novel, there is no question that Akrotiri was one of the inspirations for the chapter where Len makes his discoveries at the dig site in Renilee. The scene in the novel was a fantasy version of an archaeological dig, of course, with only the faintest reflection of genuine archaeological work. However, the mural in the story and some of the items the characters found were definitely influenced by what John and I saw during our visit to Santorini.

This photo was scanned using the “color restoration” setting on the scanner, which is why it does not have the orange tinge of the other photos. (I was shooting with high-speed film and available lighting on our fist visit to the island, back in the early 1990’s.)

Talk to you next Friday!

-Susan 8/13/2021

Writing Productivity vs Burn Out

Being an Indy author is tricky. You must learn to market your own novels. You need to find others to help with proofreading and editing, and you need a circle of friends to encourage you to keep writing when sales are low.

More than anything else, however, you need to write books. Many books.

If you listen to Amazon KDP presentations and classes given by successful Indy authors, you quickly learn that their fiction writing tends to share two characteristics: quantity and rapidity. They usually have multiple books for sale and they are capable of writing a novel or novella fairly quickly, sometimes in only a few months.

During the middle of pandemic last year, I decided to see if John and I could write a novel in six months. In order to do that, I wrote at least 500 words a day…every day…seven days a week. Between the time we started last fall and the time we finished the book this spring, I only missed one day of writing (due to a death in the family). I even wrote on holidays. During that time, John and I discussed the ongoing story constantly, often using the white board in our game room to plot the upcoming chapters.

It worked. We finished the first draft of the novel in six months. We were able to proofread it, revise and edit it, and publish it less than one year after we first started writing.

That all sounds great. (I hope the final product is great as well, but that is up to all you readers to decide.) There was just one downside. The constant writing became very difficult after a while. Writing every single day meant I never got a day off. On days when I had other activities, I sometimes would not finish my 500 words until 9:00 at night.

I did it somehow (because I am stubborn that way), but it was not easy. More importantly, it was not sustainable. Keeping up that pace would burn me out of fiction writing eventually.

Since that time, I’ve been trying to think of a compromise – a way to produce books at a rapid pace, but not suffer burn out.

For the latest novel, I am trying a modified version of the at-least-500-words-a-day plan. First, with John’s help, I outlined the novel beforehand, so we would not have to discuss it constantly. Second, I am limiting my at-least-500-words-a-day to four days of each week (Monday through Thursday). Then I get a three-day weekend off. Obviously, I can also write on those days off, if I feel inspired to do so, but I no longer have the pressure to produce.

So far, the plan has worked well. I am currently on Chapter 3 of our new novel, and I am able to enjoy the writing process with minimal stress. It will take longer to write this book than the previous one, but we still should be able to finish within a year.

I’ll let you know how it goes. In the meantime, if any of you wonderful readers out there happen to finish either of our current novels, I would love to hear your thoughts. Obviously, Amazon and Goodreads reviews are greatly appreciated, but if you prefer something more informal, my email address is listed on this website.

Talk to you next Friday!

Susan 8/6/2021

p.s. I suppose I should include the link to our latest book. It’s part of that marketing-your-own-books thing I mentioned earlier. You should be able to find it at: Prophecy’s Malignant Son: A high fantasy novel eBook: Ruff, Susan and John: Books

If that link does not work, please leave a comment and let me know. Thank you!

Writing Inspiration Destination: Heidelberg, Germany

(Note: as mentioned in an earlier blog post, one of my friends suggested that I write about some travel destinations that had a direct influence on my writing. This is part 2 of the series.)

The old section of Heidelberg, Germany is a fantasy author’s dream destination. Fairytale sights abound: a ruined castle, narrow streets, beautiful churches, orange-tiled roofs, and an idyllic riverfront complete with a stone bridge.

Photo taken inside the ruins of the castle. Do you ever get the uneasy feeling of being watched?
Doors within doors inside the ruins of the castle.

Heidelberg Castle is particularly intriguing, with its broken towers and grass-encroached grounds. I am sure that the memory of exploring that castle has influenced my fantasy writing over the years.

However, another building that John and I visited provided a far more direct influence on my writing.

The stone staircase leading up to the church tower.

On our first day in the city we crossed the plaza from our hotel (the Hotel Zum Ritter, which is itself a historic wonder) and explored an old stone church. I believe it was probably the Church of the Holy Spirit, but after 30 years, I no longer remember for certain.

Even though I can’t recall the church’s name, I will never forget the old, spiral staircase that led up to the church tower. The climb up that musty passage, so narrow that you could touch both the central pillar and the block wall as you ascended, has stayed in my memory and my imagination ever since that day. It became the “Platonic ideal” of a fantasy staircase for me — the image upon which so many staircases in my writing are based.

In the early drafts of 60th Hour, a spiral staircase led down from the Chamber of the Hours to the ancient vault beneath the mountain. Unfortunately, the spiral shape had to change in the later drafts of the novel, because it would not let Loria see the light vanishing in the final chapter. So, it was replaced with a straight staircase. (If you’ve read the book, but don’t remember the scene, feel free to leave a comment or send me an email. I don’t want print any spoilers for the novel here.)

Looking out over rooftops in the old city.

Another feature of the city actually survived into the published version of 60th Hour. Remember those tiled rooftops that Loria sees as she peers down at the darkening city of Lavay? Although that description was a composite of numerous cities that John and I visited over years of travel, the old section of Heidelberg was unquestionably one of the places that influenced the scene.

My beloved co-author with the castle in the background. (Yes, we were both much younger then. Hard to believe it has been 30 years!)

Talk to you next Friday!

-Susan 7/30/21

Writing Update for July 2021

A lot of exciting news from Emerald Cove today. First and foremost: John and my new fantasy novel Prophecy’s Malignant Son is now for sale on Amazon. You can find it at: Prophecy’s Malignant Son: A high fantasy novel eBook: Ruff, Susan and John: Books

The book is available in both paperback and Kindle format. Here is the back cover blurb:

The Prophecy of Lenar promises that a glorious ruler will arise to replace the dying monarch of Aullor. Fabren Lacalian, the half-human apprentice of a dead wizard, knows the terrible truth underlying that promise. That truth murdered his master and, if revealed, could destroy Fabren’s life. Fleeing in terror, he encounters Daraline Graciel, the archivist who first uncovered the prophecy in an ancient tome. Working together, they must stop the prophecy’s deadly march across the land. For corruption has already spread to the royal capital and the situation grows more desperate by the day.

The second piece of good news is that Emerald Cove’s writing critique group is back to live meetings again. We will gather at our favorite Denny’s tonight after more than a year apart. The Zoom meetings during the pandemic were helpful, but nothing replaces actually sitting around a table and talking about books. I can’t wait to see everyone again!

Emerald Cove’s shared world anthology is nearing completion. I’ll probably know more after the meeting tonight, but the last time I spoke with Sue, the cover art was coming along well. While we don’t have an official day for publication yet, we’re getting there.

And finally, John and I have started working on our next novel. More details to come in future posts.

Talk to you next Friday!

-Susan 7/23/2021

When Travel Influences Fantasy Literature

The iconic Merlion statue in Singapore.

A friend (who also loves to travel) suggested that it might be fun for me to blog about how I draw inspiration for my fantasy stories from the real-world places that I visit and photograph. It was a great suggestion, and really got me thinking about the ways in which visiting new places inspires my writing. Overall, I’ve found that travel, and particularly foreign travel, excites my imagination with a sense of “other-worldliness.” Stepping off the plane in a different country can feel like entering a whole new universe with amazing and unexpected sights.

A street in Singapore. I wish I could say more about it, but I didn’t caption the photograph.
Note to self: Always caption your photos!!

In my experience as both a reader and author of fantasy novels, the art of writing fantasy involves a balance between the familiar and the unique. My favorite fantasy novels to read have been those that create original landscapes and cultures, very different from our mundane world. At the same time, the characters in the fantasy story must be familiar enough to allow the reader to empathize with them and care about their world. Travel can inspire fictional works that meet both of those elements.

A pathway in the Bukat Timah nature reserve.

In addition to the general concept of how travel influences writing, there is the more specific topic of which real-world places have influenced my fantasy writing and why.

When I first considered this question, Singapore came to mind immediately. A city with a merlion for its mascot has to be a great influence for a fantasy novelist. It was not that mythical beast, however, that truly caught my imagination during the week that John and I spent visiting the city.

Likewise, the beautiful Bukat Timah Nature Reserve (where I was warned to beware of monkeys accosting tourists to steal food) was not the place that inspired me the most. Both of those sights were very nice and certainly caught my imagination.

The greatest inspiration for me as a fantasy novelist came during a walking tour of the city. The guide took us to see the “wet” market, a collection of vendors selling fish, produce, and spices. As I walked among the stalls looking at the exotic wares, I was amazed. Not only had I never seen many of the food items for sale, I could not even put a name to them.

I am far from a culinary expert, but I have done some cooking and generally know my way around the grocery store produce section. The vegetables and fruit for sale in the Singapore wet market were so far beyond my experience that I might as well have been shopping in Narnia or Chalion.

The memory of wandering among the food stalls, staring in wonder at the strange items has stayed with me over the years. That experience provided part of the inspiration for the food scene in the short story Hospitality, which is scheduled to appear in Emerald Cove’s upcoming shared world anthology.

Apparently, I was so astonished by what I saw, that I never even took a photograph of the market. (Hard to believe, considering I usually take photographs of everything, including the interior of our hotel rooms.) Because I only use my own photos in this blog, I cannot include a picture of that wet market. So I will close this blog with a picture of the not-quite-so-exotic-food-establishment that John and I also visited during the trip. While I cannot say that the food there inspired any fantasy stories, the “Fish McDippers” were tasty and I wish they had them in the U.S.

There is a reason that John and I always eat at least one meal at McDonalds in every country we visit, but that is a story for another day.

-Susan 7/16/2021

p.s. Sue is still working on the cover art for the shared world anthology mentioned above, and it looks great so far!

Fortifications, Walls, and Battlements

A portion of the Great Wall of China.

After I wrote the blog post about castles a few weeks ago, I started considering other types of structures that can be important in fantasy literature. One of the easiest to overlook (no pun intended) is the stone wall. Ranging from hastily constructed piles of rocks to elaborate edifices seen for miles, fortifications can provide both defense for the characters of a story and interesting background landscape.

A portion of Hadrian’s Wall in England.

Even in the real world, old stone fortifications often carry a mythic quality. At one time, it was said that the Great Wall of China was the only man-made structure visible from space. Hadrian’s Wall in England has been included in works of fiction. The “long walls” that connected Athens with its port city of Piraeus are the stuff of legends.

Fortifications around the city of Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Fortified cities are common in fantasy literature. Who can forget the seven levels of Minas Tirith in the Lord of the Rings? I often think of the scene of Pippin and Beregond eating lunch beside the battlements, when I visit fortified cities during my travels.

One of the old towers on the Island of Rhodes.
Battlements on the Island of Rhodes.
A portion of Themistocles’ Wall in Athens. (My scanning software “restored” the color of the old photograph, but I am not photo-editing savvy enough to remove the glare from the display glass. Sorry!)

Fortifications can sometimes be found in unlikely places. When my beloved co-author and I traveled to Athens many years ago, the first archaeological site we visited was not the Acropolis. Instead, it was the portion of Themistocles’ wall on display behind glass in the basement of our hotel.

Talk to you next Friday!

-Susan 7/9/2021

p.s. People seem to be enjoying these photo-blogs so far. Would you like me to continue with them or would you prefer that I return to the more nuts-and-bolts discussions about writing? Please feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts. Are there any other fantasy-related topics you would like to see in a photo-blog?