Author Archive for Tim Pratt


Continuing Adventures

My background as a reader, and thus my direction as a writer, is heavily weighted toward fantasy, science fiction, and horror.Though I’m best known for writing an open-ended template series — where there are continuing characters but each book stands (mostly) alone — I didn’t have a lot of experience reading books like that.

When I read series, they were usually trilogies (or quartets or the occasional longer arc), which have a completely different shape; indeed, when writing my Marla Mason novels, I was probably guided more by the lessons of television shows than by anything I read in novels — the TV series being, in many cases, a perfect example of telling new stories about the same people again and again.

In books, the template series is most common in mysteries. There are countless heroes and heroines and duos and ensembles in the mystery, crime, and thriller shelves, each book expanding on their continuing adventures, something the current hot trends in urban fantasy borrowed from that side of the bookstore. I’d read some such mysteries — a little Peter Wimsey, at least — but decided to dive into a few other mystery series lately. Partly because I wanted a break from the all-SF-all-the-time nature of my reading, and partly because I want to see how these books tick.

I don’t know how well I’m analyzing them, but I’m certainly enjoying the experience. Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels are marvelous, as a whole; some individual books are better than others, but the thug-with-a-heart-of-gold thing really works for me. I’m also a fan of Donald Westlake/Richard Stark’s Parker novels — the thief with a heart of stone, if he has any heart at all, which is an open question. (Though his occasional ambiguous hints of humanity are as impressive as they are rare.) And Westlake’s rather less brutal series, about the unlucky thief Dortmunder, are pleasurable in a different way, to see how the capers are set up, and how they fail to work out. Westlake is dead, so there will be no more books, something any reader should mourn. Robert Parker is getting on in years, but is still turning out prose with impressive regularity.

I’ve discovered what readers love about these books: opening a new one is like sitting down with an old friend. (Or, in the case of the Richard Stark books, like sitting down with a guy who’s incredibly creepy, but too fascinating to ignore.) If I come to no other fundamental discovery in these, uh, let’s call them “researches,” then I’ve still learned something of value. Create characters compelling enough that readers want to spend time with them, and the reader will grant you a lot of leeway in everything else.



Campfire Stories

After a long dry spell, I feel like writing fiction again. I wish I didn’t know exactly how long it had been, but I keep a work diary, so I know I haven’t written a lick of fiction since May 3rd, and that was just a few hundred words that didn’t turn into anything. I took the whole damn month of May off to let my batteries recharge and my aquifers refill and other metaphors of replenishment, and now the time has come to invent imaginary people and put them in terrible, terrible peril.

(It’s not like I wasn’t writing. I write a couple thousand words of freelance stuff every week, not to mention heaps of writing for my day job. But fiction is a whole different animal. Different part of my brain, different part of my soul.)

Funny thing is, I seem to have emerged from my slumber with a hankering to write horror. Maybe it’s because my life is beset by uncertainty lately? I dunno, but I went camping this past weekend and spent a lot of time thinking about camping horror stories, from ghost stories told around fires when I was young to Kelly Link’s weirdly funny-but-chilling “Monster” to Friday the 13th movies, and I thought: I want to contribute something to that proud tradition. So I started mulling things over, thinking of cool stuff I could include — newts, banana slugs, pit toilets, sinister park rangers, the inside-a-coffin blackness of two a.m., the weirdos in the campsites nearby, etc. I started thinking of a character, the kind of character who might go camping alone, in the off season, and why, and what he might encounter.

My brain latched onto the idea like a starving bear mauling a honeycomb. Apparently my mind has been dying to chew over a nice fictional scenario and make the bits fit together. You’d think the imagination muscles would go flaccid after being left unexercised for weeks, but apparently my brain has better reserves than my abdominal muscles; I feel awake, invigorated, and profoundly interested in the mental puzzle in a way I haven’t been in a while.

I don’t know if the story will turn out well — I’m going to start writing it after I post this — but this feeling, the putting-things-together, the “Ooh, what if,” the “Wow, can I get away with that?” feeling, it’s one of the main reasons I write. When I’m putting together a story in my head, I feel like I finally remember what I’m doing here on this weird planet full of narrative-loving apex predator apes.



I have an 18-month-old son, and he’s starting to pretend.

These are not yet the elaborate imagination games that my six-year-old nephew plays (though they largely revolve around off-the-shelf imagination material like superheroes and pokemon cards; I can only hope he’s doing some mental mash-ups, pitting Charmander against Batman as I used to pit my G.I. Joes against my Transformers). I’m no developmental specialist, but I know its probably not yet “playing pretend” as it is conventionally understood; it may instead just be modeling and imitating our behavior. We have an old cell phone with no battery we let him carry around, and he flips it open and holds it to his head and says (I swear) “Blah blah blah blah.” He’ll hold it up to our ears, we’ll pretend chat, and then he’ll take it back. This is proto-pretending, and imitation eventually shifts into invention.

Our son has two identical little stuffed bears (his loveys), and he’ll hold them up and point them at each other and babble, bang them together and throw them in the air and go “whee” — that’s not imitating anything we do, so what can it be but playing pretend? And who knows what he’s pretending? When he was very little we used to watch him sleep, watch his eyes flutter in a dream, and wonder, what is he dreaming about? The joys of milk? The terror of the vacuum cleaner? Now he’s been more places (Hawaii, Indiana, Wisconsin, countless parks), and done many things, and his mental palette is filled with new colors. He will sit and play quietly, absorbed, for relatively long periods. (I hear him rattling things and talking to himself in his quiet nonsense language as I write this.) He is clearly the hero of his own story already, sometimes the blessed prince who rules all he surveys with a vast benevolence, sometimes the oppressed unfortunate who can only throw himself headlong on the grass and bellow about the unfairness of being denied the opportunity to run in traffic or pet mangy stray dogs. He’s interested in everything; he’s putting together the world; he’s learning to make stories with himself at the center. It makes me think about the importance of story. Stories tell us how to live in the world. (Or how not to.) Having him, watching him grow up, is almost like growing up again myself.

I wrote a poem about him, ten months ago, when he was first becoming really very verbal:

“Common Language”

My son sits in his high chair (white
plastic from Ikea), face smeared with organic
summer vegetables in baby-friendly
mashed form, and in between bites he


Open-ended vowels, a few
consonants here and there: Ah na
na ma ma mum. He looks very serious but
then he occasionally giggles, and I
wonder if he’s commenting on the quality
of the food (which I sampled; it’s
pretty foul). Eight months old
and already a critic. I think about
how, after a day of unusual excitements
(a plane ride, a book signing, one
of the too many times he’s had surgery
already on his eyes), he shouts and
babbles and grumbles and earnestly
explains. My wife and I always say he’s

telling us about his day. It’s amazing

watching him drink down the world, and is
it any wonder he tries to talk
it over, talk it through, talk to us
the way we talk to each other? He’s trying
to invent a common language from first
principles. He’s unlocking
one of the great secrets of the human
universe here, and kid, believe me,

I’m listening.


tim’s sunday quickie: gateway drug

The first grown-up novel I ever read was Stephen King’s Carrie, at eight years old. There were always lots of horror/thriller novels in my house, and Carrie was, for whatever reason, the one I picked up. I didn’t comprehend all the stuff about menstruation, but telekinetic destruction was quite marvelous, and from then, I was hooked. My great-grandmother had a spare bedroom full of science fiction paperbacks; one of my great-aunts had Clive Barker’s Books of Blood; the local library had the first couple volumes of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. I read ’em all.

Watching The Twilight Zone probably had a lot to do with it, too.


Thematic Circling

Sorry I missed posting last week. I had one of those economic-apocalypse days (my wife and I had a sudden loss of income the night before), and spent the whole time chasing freelance work to make up the shortfall in our income. Things worked out okay — we’re set for a few months now, and chasing leads for future stuff — but it was still a harrowing day or so. My natural urge is to write a post about diversifying freelance income and being willing to write various kinds of things if you want to make a living at this kind of thing, but I’ve covered that before, so I’m going to follow another impulse and talk about thematic circling.

If you read a bunch of stuff by a given author, you’ll probably start to notice themes, images, tropes, whatever, that recur over and over. They give you a clue to the author’s ongoing concerns. (Stephen King writes an awful lot about writers and brain tumors; Tim Powers writes a lot about dead wives and drinking booze; Charles de Lint writes a lot about the evils of child abuse and the power of the imagination to transform lives; etc.) While I would counsel against doing armchair psychological profiling based on noticing such trends, it’s certainly interesting.

I, myself, do a fair bit of this sort of thing. (I’m sure I do lots of stuff I’m unaware of, too — probably better if I’m not overly aware of my deeper obsessions.) I have a tendency to seize a certain idea and attack it from different angles, and produce related works… which nobody but me ever seems to notice are related.

There’s my Legba triptych, for instance. Stories “The Scent of Copper Pennies” and “Jen at the Crossroads” and poem “The God of the Crossroads” — all about the vodun loa Papa Legba, the opener of the way, and all about parallel universes, but more importantly, all about those linchpin moments in life, those choices that change everything forever after; decisions to leave, or stay, or love, or run away. I couldn’t say everything I needed to say about the subject in one piece — so I said it in three.

Likewise my poem “Soul Searching” and my story “Life in Stone,” both about the idea of sorcerers hiding their souls away in a jewel or a stone, to become immortal — but more importantly about what it might mean to live without a soul, to go on living without an essential part of yourself, and whether that would be any kind of life at all.

My stories “Restless in my Hand” and “Over There” are both about people in the modern world confronted with epic fantasy situations (one inherits a deadly magical axe, and one has a midlife crisis related to a trip to a fantasy world decades before). More fundamentally they’re about the corrosive power of nostalgia and the danger of power fantasies. I’ve got a third story in mind for that idea, too — another triptych, examining the subject from yet another angle.

I’m never really done with anything, because by nature I am a writer who poses questions, and doesn’t expect answers; most questions about the human condition don’t have clear, simple, one-size-fits-all answers. By circling certain themes until I finally feel satisfied, though, I can begin to hone and narrow the spheres of my inquiries, and find out what’s most important to question.

-Tim Pratt


tim’s sunday quickie: fantasy mothers

Call me old-fashioned, but my favorite fantasy mother is Grendel’s mom from the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf. The beast who bedeviled Beowulf had a mother, after all, who was as formidable as her son in many ways, and who reacted to the death of her child with all the ferocity you’d expect; and that asshole Beowulf goes after her, steals a sword from her own hoard, and chops her head off at the bottom of her lake! Right in her own house! She’s a tragic figure, really.

There’s a lot of debate, much of it coming down to tough-to-translate words from the source text, about whether Grendel’s mother was a monster on par with Grendel himself, or a powerful magical warrior woman or “water woman,” and she’s been depicted as a wily seductress (hell, she was played by the naked animated version of Angelina Jolie in a recent movie!) or dark goddess as often as a woolly monster. That ambiguity is part of what appeals to me, and what makes her character more complex and compelling than a simple poster child for historical misogyny.


Other Mediums

I think TV is my favorite art form, after poetry and prose. In terms of narrative power, TV (at its best) can create a profoundly immersive experience, can really sweep me up in that vivid continuous dream. It’s such a great medium for long-form storytelling. I’m fairly wide-ranging in my tastes — I love (to varying degrees) Buffy, Angel, The Wire, Gilmore Girls, Wonderfalls, The West Wing, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Lost, Big Love, The Shield, Hustle… I could go on and on. The best TV shows are just as good, in terms of my enjoyment, as sinking into a beloved big fat novel (or series of novels).

Now, I don’t think I’d really have the collaborative chops to actually write for TV; I’m too much of a control freak, and television is by necessity a medium of compromise and collaboration, and I think I’d stink on ice if I tried it. I wouldn’t want to write a one-off episode, either — I’d want to be a showrunner, contributing to the overall arc of a show that has an overall arc. And I’d be really lousy at that, lacking as I do organizational, managerial, and diplomatic skills. But it’s a nice thought. Maybe somebody will make an awesome TV show using some of my characters some day.


Making Time

I missed a week updating here entirely, and I even missed doing a quickie on Sunday, and I wish I could say it was because I was busy taking the sun in Aruba and drinking something full of rum and tropical fruit squeezins’, but alas the truth is more prosaic — I had to spend some extra time at the day job last Tuesday, and this Sunday I was down in Santa Cruz (my favorite town) at a big party, and got home too tired to do anything but my freelancing-for-money work.

Time management is always tricky when you’re a writer, and I’m usually pretty good at it, but the realities of life do occasionally squeeze one’s time away, at which point, it’s best to consult the Hierarchy of Deadlines and Money, which states that you should blow off the non-paying stuff first.

Whenever I hear people say, “Oh, I’d love to write a novel, but I just don’t have the time,” my (usually, but not always, silent) response is, “What are you talking about? Do you think I have the time? I have a full-time job, a wife, a toddler, steady freelance non-fiction gigs, and an addiction to bad TV. I don’t have time either. So what? I make time.”

And that’s the way you do it. For me, it’s not that bad, honestly — I’m not going to give you some poor-me song-and-dance. I like writing most days, and many days, I like writing even more than I like bad TV! So overcoming that first barrier-to-entry and sitting my rear down at the keyboard isn’t usually too tough, since I find writing first drafts recreational. (Revising is a bit less fun, and copyedits/proofreading/etc. are even less fun.) But, still; you have to make the time.

I wish I could say there were magic tricks for making more time, but, probably, you gotta give something up. When my kid gets me up at 6 a.m. and takes a nap at noon, I’d love to crawl into bed for two or three hours myself, but instead, I usually write. On my lunch breaks at work, I’d like to sit on the deck and watch hummingbirds or read, but (at least when I’m being diligent), I write instead. I like to sleep eight hours a night, but I can get by on six, so I sacrifice a couple of hours to write. You get up earlier. You go to bed later. You regretfully say “no” to drinks with friends sometimes. You carve out the time.

Now, I like a good six-hour stretch to write in, but it’s tough to get those. Occasionally I work out a deal with my wife where she’ll watch the kid for a while and give me time to work in exchange for some reciprocal free time. But more often I’m writing in snatches and grabs and stolen moments. (Right now? My kid is behind me playing happily, and I’m just hoping I get to the end of this before he toddles over and demands attention. And if I don’t, well, I’ll finish this later.) But the thing is, pages accrue. They pile up. A little at a time, over a long enough period, can add up to a lot. Being a novelist is a long-term game. You probably do have the time.

You just have to be willing to give up whatever that time is currently filled with.


tim’s sunday quickie: indispensable

Today we’re talking about our favorite reference/non-fiction books for doing fantasy research. I have lots of books I adore: Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (preferably an old and a new edition, since the older ones have the names of lots more obscure nymphs), Hamilton’s and Bullfinch’s respective Mythologys, Davidson’s Dictionary of Angels (which will make the heads of any devoted Southern Baptists you know explode; those people have a hard time comprehending that in most of the early religious texts “Satan” is a job title for angels, not a specific entity, and that moreover it’s a shitty job handed out by God himself). And of course many books have been useful for more specific research.

But if I had to pick one book and get rid of the others, I’d keep An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures by Katharine Briggs. An exhaustively researched book (with an extensive bibliography), it’s the best survey/overview work I’ve read on the supernatural folklore of Western Europe (and a few migratory places like Appalachia and Australia, where fairy lore traveled and changed). I’ve gotten more story ideas from that book than I can count, and I highly recommend it for anyone with an interest in the fey.


Hunt and Gather

I’m thinking about writing a new book, and thus, I’m in hunter-gatherer mode.

When I was in college I had a poetry prof (actually a Jungian psychology prof who was also a poet, and taught poetry in the Interdisciplinary Studies Department), who explained that being a poet was more than, you know, writing poetry. To be a poet required a certain way of looking at the world, the careful cultivation of disciplined attention. I’ve found that the same thing applies to being a novelist — at least, to being the kind of novelist I am.

I’m kind of a kitchen-sink novelist. When I encounter some interesting tidbit of research or news or folklore or legend or scurrilous gossip, the story-making engine in my brain automatically starts trying to find ways to weave that into whatever story I’m brewing at the moment. When I wrote my novel Spell Games I knew it would have con-artist stuff in it, so I went digging around for lots of books and stories, non-fiction and otherwise, about confidence games and scams and methods of cheating and deception. That was directed research; that was the “hunter” portion of the process.

But I was also alert to serendipity. I read an article in the New Yorker, I think, about people who gather incredibly valuable mushrooms, and can theoretically make thousands and thousands of dollars in a short amount of time, but in a very strange and competitive market. I thought that was interesting, and filed it away in my brain. After that I started seeing mushroom stuff everywhere — mushroom toxins, mushroom medicines, strangely poetic names for mushrooms, etc. That stuff just happened to be in my path, so I picked it up; that’s the “gatherer” part of the process. The directed research and the serendipitous discoveries all mulched up together, and I wound up with a book full of stuff about con artists, but also full of stuff about fungal magicians.

All my books have been that way. I’ll start reading about Aztec mythology and stumble across stuff about poisonous frogs and it all gets mixed together. Or I’ll research the symbolic meanings of bridges and stumble across stuff about apports and psychogeography and start to see how those things can connect. Or, with the novel I’m thinking about now, my “hunting” has been reading a lot of good romance novels to see how the structure of romance novels work, and the serendipitous “gathering” has included everything from bizarre cultural events to mumblecore cinema to weird love songs — and my brain is drawing lines from one to the other, making connections, making it all fit together.

It’s a wonderful experience. It’s a lot of fun. It never stops surprising me.