In Space, No One Can See You Hide The Evidence: Crimes In Space

Welcome to Part 12, my final WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write up.

The panelists for the titular panel were as follows: Trish Matson (as moderator), Valarie Valdes, Carl Fink, and Kat Clay.

The panel description was brief and to the point (since the title covered so much): The panel discusses SF mysteries set in space.

What Is Crime?

Where ever you find people, you find good people and you fine bad people. But, what makes certain people’s behavior qualify as ‘bad’? Well, there is typically an official and/or unofficial codification of what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. Hurting others, putting others at risk, or taking advantage of others to their detriment usually tops the list. These days, the law of your country and the society in which you find yourself defines what is and is not a crime.

In our own world, we see groups like Black Lives Matter protesting what they see as the law being excessively enforced against Black Americans — among others — without accountability. Additionally, we also see justice somehow coming down on the side with the most money more often than statistically it should.

In speculative fiction, though, we often set humanity in situations where, through ignorance, (willful or not), the humans or the aliens hurt one another. In the classic Orson Scott Card Ender’s Game series, the bugs had a hive mind and didn’t realize that killing individual bodies was ending the consciousness of another sentient being, forever, (give-or-take some sort of afterlife or reincarnation).

Crimes take place in all sorts of novels, but here are some of the major crime genres.

Types of Crime Novels

  1. Cozy mystery
  2. Thriller
  3. Suspense
  4. Private Eye
  5. Classic Detective – like ‘locked room’ mysteries
  6. Police Procedural
  7. Hard-Boiled
  8. Capers

Things To Think About When Writing About Crime in Speculative Fiction:

Three Things To Think About When Writing Laws

  1. Who is creating the laws?

    Very often in speculative fiction, and often in life, the people creating the laws do not expect them to be enforced on themselves or their families. They bring in their own prejudices and assumptions about “those-types-of-people”. Or, you have people making laws based on theory, who are out of touch with the realities of life and the deviousness of people.

    If you’re in a closed environment, like a generational ship, it would likely be the officer level crew making the laws – like the Captain and those working closely with the Captain.
  2. Who is enforcing the laws?

    We expect it to be brave people and/or artificial intelligences who follow the letter of the law with a compassionate, (but far from naive), interpretation. That’s not always the case. In some societies, bribes are so expected, they’re counted as business expenses. Often, people from a particular class or background end up in law enforcement. Those enforcing the laws see people on their worst day, or only the worst people, and it can jade them, so that they come to expect that from everyone. That sort of attitude can lead to them prioritizing their own over justice, or the law.

    On that generational ship, it would likely be the enlisted level crew enforcing the laws. Security has a lot of authority, but most of us know just how expendable ‘Red Shirts’ are on Star Trek: The Original Series.
  3. Who is being policed?

    We expect it to be everyone, equally, with none above the law. Historically, we have often seen poorer areas heavily policed and heavily punished in an attempt to cut down on crime, while better off areas were less heavily policed and their residents punished with a gentler touch. And we can’t forget that those with money can often make trouble with the law go away.

    In the States, it used to be that children getting in trouble in school would end up in suspension – in school or out. Now, cops are called in, charges filed, and jail is becoming common.

    Back to the generational ship example. Most of the policing would be of the passengers, but are there class distinctions there?
    Perhaps, there some who paid for a large suite for their families, while others bought just a bunk? Are there criminals assigned to the ship to work off their debts? What happens to the later generations? Do these roles become a caste system?

    Things to think about when creating your speculative world. Which leads us to a few other thoughts.

Two Things To Think About Regarding The Speculative Aspect

  1. What are the technical limitations?

    If we’re futuristic, do we have cameras? If we’re magic, can we cast a truth spell or seeing spell? With the tech level, for less advanced societies, don’t give them modern forensics. For more advanced societies, think about how far forensics has come in the last century!

    Play fair with the reader!

    If you’re writing a who-dunnit in space, you want to establish what the laws are and at least hint at what the technology is capable of. Mystery readers typically enjoy stories better if they can either work it out themselves in advance from the clues, without it being too blatant, or see it’s obvious in retrospect.

    If you make the twist something that wasn’t explained, the readers often feel cheated.

    And we all know, readers who feel cheated leave 1-star bashing reviews.

    If there are AIs (created beings with artificial intelligence), are they the criminal? The tool used to commit the crime? The detective? Is there a thing in their programming that’s preventing them from solving the crime?

    Some of the best speculative mysteries are when the world building sets up the ‘smoking gun’, where it’s only obvious in retrospect.
  2. Who are people?

    Can you create backups of people from their last transporter session. Or from clones? So, would killing a body still count as murder.

    And delving into this, are clones recognized as people? What about other species that we may or may not recognize as fully sentient? And should we enforce our morality and expectations on alien societies?

    PERSONAL NOTE: I will always believe that the moment a clone experiences life differently than the original, they are creating their own memories and are their own person, with all the rights that entails. Why yes, I’m a second-born identical twin, why do you ask?

All The Book Recommendations!

  • The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun (The Robot Series) – Isaac Asimov
  • Long Arm of Gil Hamilton – Larry Niven
  • Six Wakes – Mur Lafferty
  • Retrieval Artist Series – Kristine Kathryn Rusch
  • All Systems Red (Murderbot) – Martha Wells
  • A Pale White In The Black – K. B. Wagers
  • A Memory Called Empire – Arkady Martine
  • Lord Darcy Series – Randall Garrett
  • The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia – Ursula Le Guin
  • An Unkindness of Ghosts – Rivers Solomon
  • Ethan of Athos – Lois Bujold
  • And Then There Were (N-One) [Uncanny Magazine] – Sarah Pinsker
  • Revelation Space – Alistair Reynolds
  • Deadly Litter – James White

What other things do you consider when you set a crime in space?

Do you have any favorite ‘crimes in space’ novels you’d like to recommend?

Writing For Young Adults

Welcome to Part 11, the penultimate of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the titular panel were: A.j. Ponder (as moderator), Katya de Becerra, Darie Little Badger, and Joe Struss. The panel description was as follows:

Does writing for young adults differ from other writing? In what ways?  How do writers approach it? What are some examples — from classics and from the panelists own work?

In the modern publishing industry, YA is a booming and, for now, a seemingly ever growing market. Despite the huge variety found within the category, there are two unifying requirements:

  1. The age of the point-of-view (POV) character needs to be young adult themselves, typically sixteen to maybe nineteen.
  2. The story must address issues that are important to young adults – such as coming of age, starting their independent lives, and establishing their own identities.

    While these themes can be explored in adult literature, those characters are often dealing with the aftermath of the decisions they made as young adults and the shape of the lives those decisions created.

Why is all the best literature YA and what makes it so great?

Obviously, we can’t list all the reasons, but here are some of the ones that easily sprang to mind for the panelists.

  1. YA literature is targeted toward teens as they’re growing and changing, and can be a formative part of their growth.
  2. YA literature is often about characters who are transitioning from childhood to adulthood, and that sort of growth makes for good stories. Stories are almost always about change.
  3. It has a great source of variety and diversity.
  4. There is a lot of space for experimentation in YA, with the genre expectations less strict
    • Graphic novels
    • Horror stories within a story
    • Epistolary – which is more texting than letters and newspaper clippings these days.
  5. Books can help model ways of handling things teens are going through, in a way that’s removed enough to not be traumatic, nor preachy. They can help with topical matters, trauma, depression, anxiety, and more.
  6. Dystopian YA shows that you can stand up to huge systems and make a difference — it’s an empowering message

What are the limits on cursing, sex, gore, violence, etc within YA?

It’s continually evolving. It used to be, you couldn’t use the ‘f’ word. And then you could use it once.

For the rest? It can be there, as long as it’s there for a story reason, not just for shock value, titulation, or gore’s sake. Consider your audience and write it in a meaningful way.

Mistakes To Be Wary Of

Of course, with writing, if you do it well enough, nothing is truly a mistake. But, these are things you may want to avoid:

  1. Chasing trends – the market fluxuates and your story may come after the enthusiasm has died down, especially if you’re being traditionally published, a process that can take years.
  2. Giving up too soon – publishing is a hard business, but perseverance can take you a long way. Maybe your road to success is your fifth manuscript, or your 200th agent query, or your twelth re-write, or self-publishing. But, you’ll never know if you give up.
  3. Not reaching out and hanging out with better writershaving a supportive group of writers you can call on is so helpful during the process. Having good friends who are better writers can only push you to reach their levels.
  4. Not being open to constructive criticism
    • CAVEAT – Constructive criticism from people you trust. BEFORE the work is published. After it’s published, it’s no use to you and will only make you second guess yourself.
    • There is very little to glean from negative reviews, unless you have structural or sensitivity issues. It’s best just to not read reviews. Or have a friend only forward the ones they think you need to see.
  5. Not writing things you enjoy or not using a voice that works for you and/or the story
  6. Not reading widelywhile you shouldn’t chase trends, you should know the shape of your market, and reading outside your genre just broadens you.
  7. Not doing your teen research – A lot of writers these days have teens magically loving 80s music and pop references. While there are some teens who do, they’re not the norm, and the trend is a bit overdone these days. Also, you have writers ignoring technology. If you’re doing a contemporary story, pay attention to the apps teens are using, how they’re using them, current slang, and more. These things become outdated quickly.
  8. Overdoing the angsty teen stereotype – Okay, this one wasn’t in the panel, but I skipped that phase, myself. (Right, Mom?) And when done poorly, it makes it hard to connect to the whiny main character.

YA stories these days run the gamut of genres and intensity, just like the true lives of teens themselves.

If you’re writing for teens, just be careful. With the popularity of YA books amongst adults, more and more YA books have main characters that teens often claim sound like adults. Keep the teen perspective in mind and write for the intended audience — or age your character up and just do an adult novel.


Do you enjoy YA novels? What are your favorites?

Have you written a YA novel? What did you find to be your biggest struggles?


P.S. Over on my podcast, this week’s episode is : How To Write? You Do You!

There are more ways to write a novel than there are writers — and what worked last time, may not work this time. In this episode, I talk about all the advice out there — and ways you can use and adapt them to work for you.

Constructed Languages

From Elvish to Esperanto to Dothraki to Belter

Welcome to Part 8 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the titular panel were: David Peterson (as moderator), Lawrence M. Schoen, Ryn Yee, and Jean Bürlesk. The panel description was as follows:

This is not a 1950s movie. The aliens don’t speak English. Fictional societies, whether on distant planets, in the far future, or in secondary fantasy worlds, will have their own languages unlike our own. These constructed languages (conlangs) can be fun–and devilishly difficult–to construct. Language experts and writers (aren’t writers language experts?) will talk about making a conlang, and how they figure into stories, from first contact to diplomacy to bargaining for your life.

How Far Should You Go?

When reading a book — like Lord of the Rings or Embassytown or watching a tv series — like Star Trek or Babylon Five, or even a movie like Arrival, even the casual fan can pick up a word or two in a constructed language (or conlang). But, from the outside-looking-in, it can be hard to determine: did the writers invent a word? Or a full language?

More importantly — if I’m writing a story, how much of this language do I need to invent? Do I need to act like Tolkien?

Well? All languages are comprised of a multitude of layers.

Layers of a Language

  1. Vocabulary — The most readily apparent. The conlang consists of words with meanings. But, let’s think about the ways the vocabulary we use reflects on us.
    • Word choice can demonstrate a particular culture (references to particular gods or rituals, expected life events, etc)
    • Word choice can also demonstrate class (“How y’all doing? versus “How do you do, today?”)
    • Words also have connotations, that may not be familiar to non-native speakers. (“My big sister” versus “my large sister”).
  2. Grammar — Most humans are designed to recognize patterns, if only to make sure they can tell when something seems ‘off’. What is grammar if not patterns of word use?
    • What order do you put your parts of speech — your nouns, verbs, adjectives, and more?
    • Do the verbs/nouns/etc change form based on other factors in the sentence? (i.e. verb conjugation based on tense or subject)
    • Punctuation (I love the Oxford comma!)

Do I Need The Whole Language Before I Can Write?

Short answer? No.

Long answer? It’s up to you. And you can always write your story and then layer the language part in.

Options for Conlangs

Treat language as world building!

  1. Opt out! Use universal translators.
    • But! Think about idioms and how poorly they translate between earth cultures. “Raining cats and dogs”.
    • Think about things that can translate content, but not intent.
  2. A few words here and there, just thrown in.
    • You can spell it either in the way that makes it more pronounceable by the majority of your audience, or stylized to give a sense of culture, (but harder to pronounce).
  3. A few sentences — an idea of the spelling of things, a form of grammar, what letters and vowels are more common in the language.
    • Try to be consistent for certain sounds. For example, pick either “ck” or “k”, and “s” or “c”. Unless there’s a cultural explanation.
  4. Give the created culture verbal ticks (“like”, “um”, etc). Plus, their own accents – both with their own language and yours.
  5. Remember those idioms? Think about what sort of hyperbolic phrases the created people’s culture might use.
  6. Have a creole language! Now, is a creole language — using part alien/ part your language easier? No. All languages have their own grammar and patterns and cultural baggage! Even dialects of your own are internally consistent.
  7. Some languages have a better vocabulary for certain concepts. Show the characters switching languages based on conversation subject matter.
    • This also means you can imply words that are too complex to be said in one (for example) English word.
  8. Next step? Think about the history of the culture. Invaders and conquests, what sort of languages got filtered in.
    • English has “beef” that comes from “cows”. How did these words get to be so different? Because “cow” is from the Germanic, while the conquering Norman (i.e. French) lords used the term “boeuf“, giving ranchers one word, and the people eating the meat another.
  9. More! What font, alphabet, pictograms, logographic, syllabaries, etc would your society use? Could it be translated into the language you’re writing in? Or not?
  10. Okay. You’ll need a glossary by now, and might be time to start thinking about a dictionary. Maybe a grammar book.

In conlang circles, the Darmock (season 5, episode 2 Star Trek: The Next Generation) is infamous. In the episode, while the translators work as usual, the culture uses references to famous (on their world) stories for many concepts.  For example, the expressions “Darmok on the ocean, Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra, Darmok and Jalad on the ocean”, convey a sense of two opposing persons, who arrive separately at an isolated place and, forced to cooperate when faced with a fierce beast, leave together as friends.(1)

Things To Be Wary Of

  1. Science fiction and fantasy has overused the apostrophe in created names and more. Be sure you need it before using one.
  2. Is borrowing from a dying language a good idea?

    I mean, science is known for using Latin for its naming conventions.

    No. Remember those connotations and contexts we mentioned? If you’re not a native speaker, it’s easy to get those wrong. And using one language to represent an imaginary language is kinda the definition of cultural appropriation.
  3. What about using words from a real language?

    Is it because you have characters from that culture? Sure! Just make sure a native speaker reads it and makes sure it both says what you meant for it to say, and that the connotation is what you intended. (‘Big sister’ versus ‘Large sister’). Just make sure the words are there for a reason, not just window dressing.

Are you ready to start creating a language?

Have you created one in the past?

Let me know how it goes/went!

Fairy Tale Contract Law

Welcome to Part 7 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the titular panel were: Kathleen Jennings as moderator, Sascha Stronach and AJ Lancaster. The panel description was as follows:

Our panellists consider various bargains made in fairy tales and fairy tale fantasy, and what that means for the laws of the land of fables: How could Rumpelstiltskin’s contract been enforced? What court could hold Jack (of Beanstalk fame) guilty of trespassing? When does a promise become a curse, or a quest a contract?

I love fairy tales, fairy tale retellings, and creating my own, so when I saw this panel was going to happen, I knew I didn’t want to miss it.

Who Makes The Rules?

When reading fairy tales, it can be rather nebulous to determine if a law is intrinsic or something instituted by a peoples.

The power dynamic is sometimes part of the story. Who knows the rules and can enforce them (Baba Yaga or Rumplestiltskin)?

In folk horror, the rules are unclear, and the rules will come and bite you. In fantasy, the rules typically come from the author or the rulers, something a little more knowable.

Although?

The punishment doesn’t always seem to fit the crime.

Like a force of nature itself. Fairy tale contracts are a way of reassuring people — if they follow the rules, they’ll be safe.

But, the saving grace of fairy tale law is there is usually a loophole. The petty details are what keeps the capricious being from completely destroying you.

Consent Matters

While in the modern era, a contract cannot be legally binding if the signer doesn’t understand it, that rule is clearly not true in fairy tale law. Perhaps, fairy law represents a shift in culture… whether one’s word is something that can be trusted?

However, the fairies can’t demand something for nothing. In order for it to be a contract, no matter how capricious it seems, the fairy has to have given you something. This is why folks are warned not to eat or drink anything in the fae realms.

No matter how ignorant of the rules the victim of fairy tale contract law might be, the mortal has usually done something to — consciously or not — agree to the contract.

Even if they don’t believe in it themselves: think of Sarah in the movie, Labyrinth, bargaining her little brother away.

One way to get trapped is either making false claims, or having someone make them on your behalf, such as the woman in Rumpelstiltskin. Her father’s claim that she could spin straw into gold started the whole mess and dragged the titular character into the story.

But? Cheating can get you out. While the fairy folk might rant and stomp until they stomp their way out of the mortal realm, they can’t deny your win. Likely because they cheated you into this contract in the first place. But, by doing the impossible, the character is shown to deserve their prize.

Common Tropes

Firstborns are often promised in fairy tales — perhaps as a way of winning back land that the humans stole from the fairy folk? With these tales being written in a time when the first born often was the sole (or primary) inheritor.

The youngest — of three, or seven, or nine usually — is typically the one to save the day. Because, in a time where the firstborn inherits, by the time you get to the last-born, they’re expected to get by on nothing but their wits.


While fairy tale contract law can be cruel and capricious, one can usually escape if you follow the rules, and think outside the box.

What are your favorite fairy tales? What loopholes have stuck with you?

What’s In A Name? Characters in Fiction

Welcome to Part 4 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the “Writers on Writing: What’s in a Name? Characters in fiction were S.K. Dunstall as moderator, Mandy Hager, Mimi Mondal, and Zaza Koshkadze.

When I read the panel description, I knew I had to watch.

Charles Dickens was a master at choosing precisely the right names for his characters. Just hearing the sounds makes them come to life: Samuel Pickwick, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and more! Like Victorian England, speculative fiction seems to be a mecca for interesting characters doing strange and wonderful things. But do the people in our stories measure up to the Victorians’ most fascinating characters? From choosing names to sketching patterns of behavior, quirks, and a host of other personality traits, what does it take to create a well-rounded character in today’s genre literature? Are names and naming conventions as important as they once were?

The Importance Of Names

Names have meanings — intentionally or not. The culture (or lack of culture) that they derive from, the length, the consonant to vowel ratio, the often gendered endings, all of these things add nuance and depth to a name, before you even hit behindthename.com to get the etymological meanings intrinsic in the words.

While not all writers bake meaning into the names of their characters, they’re often selected to convey an aspect of the character’s personality. Plus, for those writers who do want to convey meaning, there are a multitude of ways to imbue their characters.

For some writers, the name inspires the whole story, while other writers struggle until publication time to find the right name for the character. And, of course, other writers who pick a name from their heads and move on. There is no right way to write.

Things To Consider When Selecting A Name

Do your research, there are a lot of things that go into a name, that may not be readily apparent when lost to the mists of time or across a cultural divide. These are things to consider both about the character you’re naming and the name you are considering using.

  • Culture of origin
  • Social class associated with its use (in whichever time period)
  • Character’s age (Doris, Karen, Melissa, Arya all suggest a particular generation in the United States)
  • Part of the country (if in the real world)
  • The meaning of the name
  • The rhythm and mouth-feel of the name, the full name, and any nicknames
  • How similar or dissimilar in spelling the characters in your story are
    • If you have to start with the same sound/letters, try to have drastically different lengths

NOTE: Baby Name sites are often inaccurate with their definitions, but once it’s on the internet, it gets requoted without sources

Creating Names

Things to be wary of when creating names that don’t already exist:

  1. Google them, make sure they aren’t a word in another language
  2. If you’re going for alien by adding Xs and Ys and such… that’s not so alien in some cultures. Remember that what you find alien, may not universally be so.
  3. If you’re modifying a name from another culture, run it past a couple people from that culture to make sure it’s not an offensive or socially mismatched looking name
  4. Readers usually prefer something they can pronounce

Using Real People’s Names

You can get into some very deep legal trouble if someone realizes that the character with their name was based on them — and they don’t like the characterization. There are some protections, but most authors try to avoid the whole issue.

  1. Send them a copy before you publish and make sure they sign off on the way you use their name
  2. Have them as a flattering cameo (very few people object to pleasant, minor depictions)
  3. Change a letter or three, to give yourself a level of deniability, or some other riff off of their name.
  4. If you’re picking names from a culture not your own:
    • check with someone from that cultural background, to make sure you’re not inadvertently using the name of an infamous criminal, or their version of “Charlie Brown”
    • pick something pronounceable in the language you expect to be published in (unless the name challenge is part of the story or you have another good reason)
    • One place to find names is from a newspaper from the culture you want your name from, don’t use headliners, and don’t mix first and last names, if you’re unfamiliar with naming conventions. Otherwise, you may get names from two opposing genders, factions, or worse.
  5. Even if you’re not writing in a different culture, watching T.V. and movie credits can be a great place to find naming inspirations

Do you struggle with naming characters?

Where do you get your naming inspirations?

And for you, which comes first? The names or the story?