Merry Christmas and happy holidays, everybody! This week I’m back to telling you a little bit about how my various novels came to be and sharing some insights about what it’s been like to work in shared-world fiction. It turns out that when you gripe about Star Wars, you get a lot of attention—we’ll see if the readership sticks around when I return my attention to something less controversial.
First things first: The term “shared world” means a setting or universe that belongs to somebody else. Typically, shared worlds have some central game, movie, or property at their heart, and multiple authors who don’t own the copyright to the work. There’s usually a big shelf of shared-world novels at your local bookstore: Star Wars, Star Trek, Dungeons & Dragons/Forgotten Realms, Halo, and so on. When you write in a shared world, you have to “color inside the lines” a bit: Whatever you write has to meet the standards the publisher establishes for that world. That does tie your hands a bit as a writer, but on the bright side, you know there’s an established audience for your work and you can explore interesting, under-served characters or events in a world you probably enjoy at least a little bit.
All of the novels I wrote for TSR and Wizards of the Coast are shared-world fiction; my new Sikander North novels are original fiction, although using the term “original” to distinguish shared-world from non-shared worlds suggests that the one is better than the other. I think you can find highly creative and entertaining stories in both venues—it’s really a matter of what you’re hungry for as a reader.
The Shadow Stone
Last time, I recounted the story of the Birthright novel line and how The Falcon and the Wolf came to be. As I noted previously, the book was solid enough that Brian Thomsen, head of TSR’s Book Department at the time, approved me for a second Birthright novel shortly after I finished The Falcon and the Wolf. So, months before the first book even came out, I started working on the second. (This would have been early in 1996.) The Shadow Stone was in many ways a much better *novel* than The Falcon and the Wolf. Having used the first book to depict the central theme of the Birthright setting—nobles, bloodlines, fighting for your kingdom—I took a much different tack in The Shadow Stone to tell a great story in the Birthright Setting.
The Shadow Stone tells the story of Aeron, a young half-elf commoner from the countryside forced to flee his home when he’s pushed into lashing out against the local lord. He finds shelter with an elven wizard in the forests near his home, and becomes a talented (if somewhat overconfident and impatient) apprentice. Eventually his master sends him on to a mage academy in the big city, recognizing that Aeron’s path leads away from a reclusive life in the woods. There Aeron struggles to adjust to a situation in which his elf-taught magic and common origins put him at odds with his noble-born fellow students. And, naturally, he runs into a remnant of an ancient evil—the corruption of magic with the power of shadow—and a new master hiding a dark secret.
One of the interesting things about The Shadow Stone is that I drew upon a little of my own life experience. No, I’m not a wizard. But I did spend my freshman year at Virginia Tech as a “new cadet” in the Corps of Cadets, which means I received a healthy dose of grief and ridicule from the upperclassmen (no more than any of my fellow new cadets did—it wasn’t personal). I channeled my inner New Cadet when writing about the trials and tribulations of the young wizards in the Cimbar academy. Anyway, I felt that The Shadow Stone was a great follow-up to The Falcon and the Wolf, with a better story, a better expression of the hero’s journey, and better writing with a little dose of personal authenticity in the right spots.
Then TSR stopped publishing in December of 1996.
For months, The Shadow Stone languished alongside The Falcon and the Wolf while I waited for the company to start publishing again. Eventually Wizards of the Coast stepped in and bought TSR. They took a hard look at all the frozen projects and products lines, and one fine afternoon they killed the Birthright book line. I lost not just one but TWO novels in a single business meeting, the first two novels I’d managed to sell in my young writing career.
(Brian Thomsen did something then that I’ll never forget: He immediately left the meeting after the decision had been reached to cancel the line, and came to tell me in person. Brian was a controversial figure to a lot of people who worked at TSR; let’s just say that it’s not my story to tell, but I believe my former colleagues have good reason to feel as they do. Anyway, Brian had the simple decency that day to realize just how hard I’d been hit and to recognize that he had to break the news to me before I heard about it from the rumor mill.)
If you’re keeping score at home, you’ll observe that at this point, I’ve written three books: one never sold, and two got cancelled. As of the spring of 1996, I was 0 for 3 in attempts to publish a novel.
Strangely enough, that was not the end of the story. My work on the two unpublished novels I completed for TSR’s Book Department led to an unexpected opportunity less than a year later, which became my (finally!) first published novel: Easy Betrayals (coming up next time). And, after Easy Betrayals, editor Peter Archer came to me about doing something to The Shadow Stone that never would have occurred to me: He suggested converting it to a Forgotten Realms novel.
So, early in 1998, I rewrote The Shadow Stone to move the story from the world of the Birthright setting to a suitable corner of the Forgotten Realms. Fortunately, the Realms offered several potential “landing spots” for the story; I chose the land of Chessenta because it featured a big city where a school of magic would fit quite well. I reworked the villain and his plot to fit cleanly into existing Realmslore while introducing something interesting and new. In fact, the idea of the Shadow Weave—a concept that influenced quite a lot of Realms stories and adventures in the 3e and 4e eras—came from the work I did in re-imagining The Shadow Stone as a Forgotten Realms story.
Some folks have their reservations about that, and feel like that whole element doesn’t really “belong” in the Realms because of its origins in a different D&D world. I think that’s a little unfair; Forgotten Realms has always been a world that absorbs many different influences and ideas, and I did a lot of digging in deep Realmslore to make sure I wasn’t contradicting what had come before. As for the prominence of the Shadow Weave in 3e material, I didn’t make any special effort to advocate for it during our work on the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting 3rd Edition; the design team picked up on the idea I’d introduced in The Shadow Stone and ran with it. (I think the idea was that we wanted to suggest that some magic was well and truly beyond the control of Mystra, the goddess of magic, so that we’d give ourselves more room to explore stories where Mystra really ought to directly intervene to foil a highly destructive plot.) And, while I didn’t return to the Shadow Weave in my novels after The Shadow Stone, if you look in the right places, you can still find distant echoes of Aeron’s brush with the Shadow Stone in the 5e Realms today.