Monday, June 20, 2022

Fun with Shared Universes

Have you ever written in a shared universe before? A world created with or by other authors where your story and character dwells in a piece of it? Though I've participated in a few such projects over the years, it still feels like a relatively new skill for me. Currently, though I'm involved in two separate shared-universe projects, which is why it's been on my mind lately.

My first foray into a universe created by someone else was when I first joined Crazy 8 Press and was asked to contribute an all-new story for the re-release of their shared-world anthology Tales of the Crimson Keep: Newly Renovated Edition (edited by Bob Greenberger). The first edition had come out a few years back, and after reading it, I was relieved to find that the premise was wide enough to leave lots and lots of room for more adventures. In a medieval-style high fantasy world, lies the mysterious Crimson Keep an ever-expanding, ever-changing enchanted fortress. Inside lives the Master and three apprentices, along with a motley assortment of creatures. I decided right away that instead of working within the existing plotlines, I'd introduce an outsider - a girl who enters the Keep on a quest for magic that can save her sick sister. That way, I could play with the setting without worrying too much about continuity with the existing tales.

I took a similar approach to my story in Pangaea III: Redemption, also from Crazy 8 Press (part of the fun of being with this author collective is getting to contribute to their annual anthologies). Now, as the title implies, this book was a THREEQUEL. The shared-world anthology series (here are links to volume 1, Pangaea, and volume 2,  The Rise of Dominjaron) took place in a speculative world in which the continents never broke up and Neanderthals wander the world alongside Homo Sapiens. I read the first two volumes, which were full of adventure and political intrigue, all revolving around a complex plot weaving through the interconnected stories. I'll confess, I copped out a bit. Coming in as a newbie in volume 3, I didn't feel equipped to plug a new story into the existing world. So I wrote a standalone mystery that took place on a cruise ship - murder in confined quarters, in the tradition of Death on the Nile - so I could literally disconnect from it all. The editor, Michael Jan Friedman, found a way to incorporate it into the wider plot anyway, by having my cruise ship be a vessel for some important characters.

In my latest two shared-universe projects with Crazy 8 Press, I've been involved from the beginning, which made a huge difference in terms of what I was willing and able to do in terms of cross overs. Phenomenons: Every Human Creature (also edited by Michael Jan Friedman) is a superhero anthology that takes place in a post-financial-crisis world, where elite (and evil) Captains of Industry abuse their powers, and the Phenomenons must stick up for the little guy. 

My story this time was about a teen girl with the power to control salt, who'd been using her abilities to become a schoolyard vigilante known as Sarcastic Fringehead. But when she learns that an ancient artifact belonging to her ancestral hometown is being kept at the Met Museum and one of these Captains of Industry is hankering to get his hands on it, she takes it upon herself to return it to its rightful place (reverse Indiana Jones, if you will). Thanks to some planning ahead, I was able to share villains with another author in the anthology, Keith RA DeCandido, and reference the wider world the other authors were helping bring to life.  

We've just finished crowdfunding the second volume, Phenomenons: Season of Darkness, and those of us with New York-based superheroes are talking crossovers. I think it'll be fun, getting to write one piece of a larger story rather than dealing with all of it myself like I'm used to. In some ways, it's less work, because the world-building has largely been done for you, and you can take inspiration from other things going on in this world. In other ways, it's harder, since you have to make sure what you're aiming to do fits with the wider picture and doesn't contradict what the other authors have helped establish.

The latest shared-universe project I've been involved with is the recently launched Kindle Vella series PRISM. The premise is that in the 1980s, a group of international spies seek to retrieve mysterious alien artifacts scattered around the world before unsavory types get their hands on them. We purposely set up this world to give everyone plenty of space to do their own thing. Since Kindle Vella is a platform for short, serialized fiction, we wanted each episode to have the feel of a standalone, well, episode. And as part of this, we each came up with our own agents and wrote about their missions in various parts of the world.

My character for this series is the rookie Agent Aureate, aka Valeria Volkova, a gymnastics champion recruited in her first appearance. So far she hasn't had a chance to meet up with the other agents yet, but who knows what future episodes have in store?

Anyway, shared-universe writing can be both fun and challenging -- you have to give up some control over the world-building and some plot lines, but in exchange you get to bounce off the creativity of other writers. I think I'm finally starting to get a feel for it and look forward to many more projects to come!

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