“Madam Tomahawk” and the thrill of writing in someone else’s universe

If you stick with the writing game long enough, someone might ask you to try out characters and worlds someone else made up. It could be a Star Wars story, or the next chapter of a novel that some writer friends are passing through for fun. Snatching the proverbial baton from someone else can present some (amusing) unique writing challenges, and it’s potentially overwhelming if you’re not careful.

Last year I was asked to write the next novel in the long-running “A Grifter’s Song” series for Down & Out Books. Each of the 29 (and counting) “episodes” follows Sam and Rachel, a pair of con artists who roam the nation in search of lucrative payoffs. As you might expect from a crime series, they run into trouble on a regular basis, including brands deadlier than it looks, mobsters determined to get their own heads, and backyard criminals trying to make a double cross.

The series, which was created by Frank Zafiro, has attracted a diverse slate of writers over the years, including Hilary Davidson, Paul Garth, SA Cosby, Holly West, Eric Beetner and Eryk Pruitt. Each of these writers has brought their own unique voice to the enterprise, but each episode also follows a set of ground rules set out from the start, which leads to the first point: With something like this, you need a series bible (note also as a narrative Bible).

A Series Bible is a document (for some projects it could even be a book) that details all the characters, story arcs, relationships, and much more. Some might describe what the writer can (and can’t) do with the material; with “A Grifter’s Song”, for example, we couldn’t eliminate the protagonists and we couldn’t do anything physically radical (like cutting off a hand). Whether you’re starting a series on your own or joining someone else’s long-running project mid-stream, a series bible is essential. Don’t start without one.

If you’re writing the next installment in a series or universe, it’s also important to read as many previous episodes/entries/books as possible, even if you only have a limited amount of time. Sure, you I could get by with just reading the series bible, but you’ll miss out on all the nuances of the universe, meaning you’ll miss out on the opportunity to weave in series-specific elements and easter eggs that really make the piece sing.

Getting the tone right is another challenge, which may come down to the “stiffness” of the underlying property. Every writer of James Bond novels since Ian Fleming’s death (think John Gardner, Raymond Benson, Anthony Horowitz et al) has faced the unenviable task of incorporating the elements that fans have come to expect (the megalomaniac villain, etc.) refreshing things as much as possible. With the worst entries, you can sense Fleming’s ghost lurking just below the surface, twisting the narrative and voice into something the author doesn’t really want it to be.

But other writers take it away: V. Castro is recent Aliens: Vasquez it has all the xenomorphic cinematic action you’d expect, but it’s also a shining example of his unique voice, intertwined with the same themes he’s tackled in his other non-‘Alien’ books.

Luckily, I had quite a bit of leeway Lady Tomahawk, my contribution to “A Grifter’s Song”. I’d written a series about con men on the run before (“Love & Bullets”), so one of my main goals was to make sure Sam and Rachel didn’t sound and act too much like Bill and Fiona, the witty anti-heroes I’d created for my previous books. I also wanted to set a novel in Washington DC, where I grew up, but stay away from Capitol Hill and the White House: funkier neighborhoods like Adams Morgan seemed more suitable for these crooks.

I did it? It depends on you. But if you ever get the chance to contribute to a series or shared universe, make sure you have the source materials you need and are comfortable mixing with everything that’s come before. It’s a real meld of minds, potentially frustrating, sure, but also exhilarating.

Gain Lady Tomahawk on Amazon

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