Dawn Vogel on Writing in Shared Universes


Covers by Luke Spooner*

Today Dawn Vogel has agreed to talk to us today about writing in shared universes.

GC: Dawn please tell us about yourself. What do you write? What themes tend to appear in your work? Which writers have influenced you?

I’m a Midwest native who transplanted herself to the West Coast almost 10 years ago. Though I’ve been writing all my life, I started getting serious about it after my transplanting. I write speculative fiction, though I tend toward a lot of fantasy, steampunk, and alternate history. Most of what I write is short stories, but I have published one novella, and my first novel is due out in 2017.

I’ve identified two themes that keep popping up in my stories. First, I like to give my stories titles in languages I don’t speak. So far, I’ve had titles in Russian, Italian, Greek, and Spanish. And though I’ve studied a lot of languages (French, Latin, German, and Old English), those aren’t the ones I look to when I’m giving a story a title! Second, I write a lot of stories about things in the water that want to kill you—mermaids, nixies, nereids, and other such beasties. While I can’t explain the former very well, I think that the latter is a semi-conscious understanding that there’s a lot beneath the waves that humans have never seen, and the ocean can be a really scary place because of that.

My main influences are probably Stephen King and Neil Gaiman. I don’t really write effective horror, but I devoured anything I could get my hands on by Stephen King as a teenager. In college, a friend handed me Sandman when I was bored, and that got me hooked on Neil Gaiman. I think that I look more to Stephen King for structural things, and more to Neil Gaiman for language things.

GC: Today you’ve graciously offered to speak with us about writing in a shared universe. Please define for us, what a shared universe means. How does this differ from fan fic?

While I’m sure that not all shared universes work exactly the same, in my case, it’s a universe that was developed by one author who then invited his friends to play in his sandbox. It’s a city named Cobalt City that is home to more than its fair share of super heroes, and the city has a long history of being a place where super heroes lived. The setting started out as a role-playing game, and some of the characters in the universe are the characters from that game. Others got added in along the way.

There definitely are some parallels to fan fic, but I think the main difference is that there’s a lot more collaboration between the shared universe authors than there is in most fan fiction communities, simply because our shared universe has a handful of authors (a grand total of 17 authors that I’m aware of, though only half a dozen regulars), as compared to hundreds or thousands of fan fiction writers for any given fandom. I think also there’s considerably more agreement on what is “canon” in a shared universe than in the fan fiction world.

GC: We’ve all heard about the Star Trek Bible that Paramount sends to any prospective writers, which sharply curtails where they can go with the characters. Is this your experience? If so, do you view these constraints as a positive (i.e. encourages your imagination) or simply structural like a five paragraph essay?

For the shared universe that I write in, our “bible” is a lot less formal. We have some private wikis where we can put up notes about characters, locations, timelines, and more, so that the information can be found easily for reference. I’ve toyed with the idea of making a concordance for all of the books and stories in the shared universe, but I haven’t had the time to make that happen yet. Many of us are also in the same area, if not the same writing group, so we can frequently just chat with one another in person if we have questions or ideas to bounce off of each other.

Failing that, we send a lot of emails back and forth, and we usually share our drafts of stories with the creator of the shared universe and any other authors who might be using some of the same characters. Because we don’t have too many authors producing work in this shared universe, we’re not overwhelmed by a huge amount to read to keep up on the current state of things.

We definitely do have some slightly “proprietary” characters, but it’s mainly based on who we each prefer writing. But it isn’t a matter of any of us saying “you can’t write my characters,” it’s much more of us looking over the other authors’ work and making suggestions based on our interpretation of that character. For example, my husband recently wrote a story that included one of the characters that I frequently write, and mentioned her dropping a lot of “F-bombs.” I suggested that she would be far more likely to curse in Chinese or some fictional language, so he revised it with my suggestions in mind.

GC: What have been some of your best experiences as a writer in a shared universe?

Several years ago, five of us sat down with a shared Google Doc, and we wrote a collaborative story over the course of several hours. It took some polishing after we were all done, but it was amazing to be able to write a scene that was actually a dialogue between two characters, with one author writing in each character’s voice. When we got stumped on where to go next, we could jump to another author’s scene and see what they were doing, which often triggered the next step for our characters. It was a neat mash-up of writing and a role-playing game, and it turned out a really fun story. (The story is “Carnival Heart,” which appeared in Cobalt City: Dark Carnival.)

I’ve also developed a couple of historical characters in the lineage of one of the “legacy” super heroes, where the mantle of the super hero is handed down from, in this case, father to son. But because I’m interested in shaking things up, my characters in the lineage are a couple of women who have taken on the persona of that super hero in times of need. Seeing other authors reference these historical characters is a thrill!

GC: If someone is thinking about writing in a shared universe, what are some things they should consider?

In order to be successful at writing in the shared universe, you have to be able to accept constructive criticism, and you have to be flexible enough to work with the ideas that others bring to the table. Both are important to maintaining continuity in the universe. Sometimes you’ll get to come up with the innovative ideas that the other authors agree to accept, while other times, forces outside of your control will keep you from going down a route you were considering. As an example here, the shared universe creator is currently working on a novel in which a favorite character of mine (though not one I write) will die in a blaze of glory (which is the only way for that character to go out). So while I’m really bummed that this character won’t be available for later use, several of us have come up with ideas on how he might still be used—for example, flashbacks, stories set before his death, or appearances as a spirit of some sort, all of which are very much in keeping with the setting and the continuity.

The other thing to know is that it can be challenging in a really good way. I didn’t grow up reading comic books, and yet here I am, having written seven short stories set in a super hero universe. I’ve learned a lot about the genre by reading others’ stories and writing my own. And because of this experience, I’ve been able to write a couple other super hero stories that are not set in this universe, as well as learning more about writing action sequences than I ever could have learned otherwise!

GC: In writing in a shared universe, are you expected to read everything others contribute (almost impossible in the Trek universe although they do have the Bible) or are you more independent? Do you “buddy-up” with one or two other writers or is everyone on their own?

We do tend to read everything others have contributed, but again, this is a pretty small stable of regular authors, so there’s not a huge volume of work. Generally, when someone is starting something new, they’ll send out the word that they’re working with certain characters at a certain point in time, and see who that might impact. Then those authors usually work more closely with each other to work out the details. Right now, there’s a new character that a new author just added to the setting, and we’ve given her some connections with existing characters. So while she works on her book featuring this new character, a couple of others are giving the new character guest appearances in their projects, and they are emailing back and forth more regularly to keep all of their details straight.

GC: Shared settings are easier to deal with than shared characters. What are the pluses and minuses of both extremes? Where is your sweet spot and why?

My sweet spot in this universe is finding the characters that no one else is writing and taking them under my wing, so to speak. I write two characters who existed on the fringes prior to my involvement in the shared universe, but almost everyone else that I write is a character that either spawned off of someone else who existed in the universe or that I came up with on my own. The other existing characters get passing references in my books, but I tend to not give them a lot of camera time. That’s how I balance the use of the shared characters within the shared setting.

There are definitely some characters in the setting that I don’t even attempt to write—a lot of the big, heavy hitters just don’t hold a lot of interest for me. So I write the techies and the heroes who have trained to be good at what they do rather than the ones with powers. A city of super heroes needs all kinds of heroes, from the super powered to the mundane, so I carve out my own niche in the low-powered section and have fun. And then I, as well as my characters, watch as the big guns soar overhead.

GC: Thank you so much for all this great information. Where can we find you if we want to read more?

I have a writing website and blog here. You can find out more about the books and stories of Cobalt City here.

* Luke Spooner a.k.a. ‘Carrion House’ is the artist who did the two covers above. He currently lives and works in the South of England. Having recently graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first class degree he is now a full time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy or dark in nature and essence. He believes that the job of putting someone else’s words into a visual form, to accompany and support their text, is a massive responsibility as well as being something he truly treasures. You can visit his web site here.

Dawn Vogel has written and edited both fiction and non-fiction. Her academic background is in history, so it’s not surprising that much of her fiction is set in earlier times. By day, she edits reports for historians and archaeologists. In her alleged spare time, she runs a craft business, helps edit Mad Scientist Journal, and tries to find time for writing. She lives in Seattle with her awesome husband (and fellow author), Jeremy Zimmerman, and their herd of cats. Visit her here.

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