Kelly McCullough writes fantasy, science fiction, and books for kids of varying ages. He lives in Wisconsin with his physics professor wife and a small herd of cats. His novels include the, WebMage and Fallen Blade series — Penguin/ACE, School for Sidekicks, Magic, Madness, and Mischief, and Spirits, Spells, and Snark — Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan. His short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. He has Patreon and Ko-fi pages for those who are interested in supporting his work more directly. He also dabbles in science fiction as science education with The Chronicles of the Wandering Star — part of an NSF-funded science curriculum — and the science comic Hanny & the Mystery of the Voorwerp, which he co-authored and co-edited — funding provided by NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope. Kelly on Twitter, Facebook, G+, ello

Research and Me, or: The Compost Heap Model

June 5, 2013 in Books, Writing

Someone asked me about my research process for the WebMage books. I wrote the following up, and thought it might be of more general interest, as it explains my general model for research.

Most of the research I was doing with the WebMage books was by way of refreshing long standing reading in mythology, specific geographic information for local color, or computer tech stuff. I didn’t have to do a lot of new reading for the series because it’s all stuff (with exception of some of the local color and new tech) that was mostly in my head from years of reading widely in mythology and growing up in a household with both software and hardware computer folks.

In general, I don’t do a lot of research specific to the book I’m working on. I mostly try to read widely in a lot of fields on whatever interests me at the moment and then toss it all into the back of my head where it composts away in the dark for later application to fiction, or inspiration of same.

I wish I could be more specific, but that’s not really how I approach research, except for detail work that comes up as I need it. So, for a theater book, I might realize I need to look at a rehearsal schedule and email someone at a theater to see if I can get a copy. Or, I might realize I need to know what pistol the British military was using in 1939, and go look it up. Otherwise, everything gets fed into the woodchipper and then mounded up for later use.

That’s actually my primary story generation system as well, as things are always crawling out of the compost heap/mulch pile and making a break for it.

Updated to add: Librarians. When I do need those specific bits of information, I often email one my many librarian friends and tap their mad skillz to find the right bits with a minimum of fuss and hassle.


Friday Cat Blogging

May 31, 2013 in Friday Cat Blogging

I am very unsure about my toes.


I am very unsure about this ledge.


I am very unsure about becoming a bridge.


I am very unsure about the width of this radiator bench.


I am very unsure about the other cat.

                                                                                                      I am very unsure about me too.


I am very unsure about the cameraman.


I am very unsure about last night’s whiskey.


I am very unsure if this radiator will keep me safe.

                                                                                       Be sure that it won’t.



The Implicit Contract Between Writer and Reader

May 29, 2013 in Reblogging Project, Writing

Fellow Wyrdsmith Sean M Murphy mentioned this idea in the comments on my original what the author owes the reader post at Wyrdsmiths and it came up a lot at CONvergence 2007, so I thought I’d discuss it. When an experienced reader picks up a science fiction or fantasy story they do so with a number of implicit expectations which form a contract of sorts between the reader and the writer (this is also true for other genres, but the expectations have some variations, so I’m going to focus here on F&SF).

They expect that the story will be about something. They expect that there will be clues and foreshadowing that will point toward the ending. They expect that the author won’t introduce things into the denouement that were not introduced or implied somewhere earlier in the story. They expect things to conform to the general rules and tropes of the genre or for deviations to be explained at some point.

For example, readers expect science fiction to follow the general rules of science. The technology should be of a generally consistent level. Deviations from that norm should be explained either at the time of the introduction of the deviation, or at least noted as being a deviation, with the expectation that the reason will be explained later. If the author wants to write an SF story with magical elements, then the magic had better be shown to exist very very early in the story and there will have to be a scientific explanation (even if it’s just handwaving) somewhere in the story. Likewise, if you’re writing fantasy with elements of sf you want to let the reader know about it early on or at least hint at it.

Another important aspect of the implicit contract has to do with a term I’ve borrowed from science education, the problem statement. Somewhere early in the story, ideally in the first couple of pages, the author has to define the problem that is going to be solved or addressed over the course of the story. The problem can be, the One Ring is a powerful magical device and we will have to learn what it is and what to do with it. It can be Miles Vorkosigan has washed out of military school, what is he going to do with the rest of his life? It can be Corwin of Amber realizing he doesn’t know who or what he is. The answer doesn’t have be resolved as the character expects or wants it to be, in fact in general it shouldn’t be as they expect, though it should be logical and follow naturally from the flow fo the story. But the reader needs to have some idea what to watch and watch for, or they will become increasingly unhappy over the course of the story, and downright irate if the rug is suddenly jerked out from under them somewhere along the line.

Now, it’s possible to do every one of the things I’ve said you shouldn’t, but it has to be done consciously and extremely well or the book is likely to end up traveling in a ballistic arc and lose you a reader, certainly for that story and possibly forever.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog July 12 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

What Does the Writer owe the Reader?

May 27, 2013 in Reblogging Project, Writing

Fellow Wyrdsmith Eleanor Arnason was on a panel about what the writer owes the reader at WisCon, and she talked about it here . It’s an important question and I really wanted to come back to it. Eleanor’s post included the following:

“Ellen Kushner said writers owe readers the truth, which I guess is true.

I would say the writer owes readers — and herself — the best job she can do.

I tend to believe that the writer owes readers a work that will make their lives better, something they can use in dealing with life.”

I agree with all these points, especially the second one, and yet…I want to say something more.

I guess for me it’s contextual. What story am I trying to tell? Who is the character I’m currently writing? When is the story set? And where? Those are all the sorts of things that will determine what I owe the reader in a given piece. Most importantly of all, what am I trying to achieve with this story?

Sometimes, as in the case of the hard science fiction shorts I wrote for middle school students, it’s conveying good, real, science in a way that lets student see the gears move. Sometimes, I owe the reader a true representation of my core beliefs. Sometimes, if the character disagrees with me, I owe my reader the best arguments I can make against those same beliefs. Sometimes I just owe the reader a damn good ride, or some laughs.

It’s good to write truth. It’s good to give a reader something they can use to make their lives better. It’s good to make a reader laugh or cry or think deeply. But you don’t have to do it all at once. No one story should have to carry everything the writer hopes to accomplish with their fiction.

Picture a story as a boat. Yes, there are great ships that can ferry a life’s work across an ocean—stories that can do everything. But there are also submarines and canoes and even surfboards. Stories that touch you beneath the waterline of the subconscious, or that glide silently across the lake of the mind with a single smart thing loaded amidships, or that just give you a hella ride through the surf. Every single one of them has its proper place and purpose and that’s important to remember.

The key isn’t to do everything every time, it’s to do what you want to do this time to the best of your ability, and it’s okay if all you’re shooting for in a given story is one pure silly smile. Don’t let yourself get trapped into thinking beyond the needs of the story.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog July 10 2007 and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)


On the Naming of Names

May 25, 2013 in Writing

Someone recently asked me about where I get my character names. I do a mix of things.

1) Researching names and words appropriate to the cultures I’m drawing on for a piece and adopting or adapting them to fit my story—Haemun from the WebMage books, and most of the human side-characters in Fallen Blade fit the mode.

2) Grabbing names that suit the character more less at random from the depths of years of reading—Melchior is one of those coming as it does from descriptions of the three wise men in the bible, which in Mel’s case I think of the three wise guys.

3) Pulling random sound combinations or names out of my back brain because they taste* right—Ravirn and Aral both fall under this latter rubric. Ravirn was originally a short story character and I hadn’t planned to do much more with him, so I didn’t put much thought into the name, just reached into my back brain for something that sounded good. Aral, I came up with on the spur of the moment for an email discussion I was having with my editor.

*Taste is the word I use to describe back brain processing of things in my writing. Mostly that’s at the sentence or word level, but it’s also how my sense of how novel structure works. I write in a very spoken-word-oriented mode, saying things in my head as I write them—and I check my grammar etc. as I write by the way it feels in the mouth of my mind.


Old Noodles

May 24, 2013 in Silly

Found these in an old writing thread (circa 2002). Someone had sent a friend some added stanzas for the song “That’s Amore.”

So the original verse looked like this:

When the moon hits your eye
Like a big pizza pie
That’s amore.

Someone else had added these, among others:

When an eel bites your hand
 And that’s not what you planned
 That’s a moray.

 When our habits are strange
 And our customs deranged
 That’s our mores.

Which led the following to crawl out of my brain:

When a Greek serves you wine
and the vase tastes of pine
That’s amphorae

When the man on the stage
Croons songs all the rage
That’s Mel Torme

When the cook in the kitchen
Makes food that’s bewitchin’
That’s a gourmet

Here are two more really bad ones that I threw into the original post (I include these mainly as an example of the sorts of thing that I would normally delete and that my archivist insists should be saved for posterity):

When the queen of the elves
Makes men lose themselves
She’s a glamour fey

When the sound of your poems
Are drowned out by groans
That’s the clamor way

Friday Cat Blogging: Mug Shots

May 24, 2013 in Friday Cat Blogging

Kitty Mug Shots Edition

Arrested for: Moping with intent


Arrested for: Advanced thuggery, but really regrets it.


Arrested for:Sleeping on the grass


Arrested for: Dude, is that catnip!


Arrested for: Drunk and disorderly


Arrested for: Devouring the souls of the living



Writing Tools and Environment

May 24, 2013 in Reblogging Project, Writing

My first book was written on my first computer. This is not a coincidence. Without modern writing tools and the ability to freely move paragraphs around and make corrections I probably wouldn’t be a writer. I need that freedom to change my mind.

In fact, freedom is generally important to me in writing. My first book was written on a generation one MacIntosh which I could easily pick up and move around the apartment to suit my current whim. Much of it was written with my feet up on the couch, the keyboard in my lap, and the computer off to my right on the coffee table. Terrible ergonomics, but ideal for my thinking process.

Now I do all my writing on a laptop and I have for as long as I’ve been able to afford one. This means I can write on the porch, at the coffee shop, in bed, sitting in the corner under a stairwell at one of my wife’s physics conferences, even tucked away behind a display at the Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. and I’ve written happily in all those places.

2013 update: In reading this again now, I realize it’s probably worth noting that the desire for freedom in my writing space extends to the idea of societal expectations of work space. Put me at a desk and it becomes very difficult for me to write. I think that’s because my sub-conscious interprets desk as day job space. Likewise I find I work better on a chaise or easy chair with my feet up and lots of open visual space around me—ideally with lots of windows and an outdoor view. I really really don’t like feeling constrained.  

On the other hand, I know people who draft long hand with a pen, on an actual typewriter, using voice recognition software, or dictating into a tape recorder while walking in the mountains. Everyone does it differently and we all have our reasons. The only thing that really matters is that the writing actually gets done.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog June 28 2007 and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Travel and Recharging the Batteries

May 23, 2013 in About Kelly, Musings, Reblogging Project, Writing

So I’m just back from two weeks wandering around the Canadian maritimes with friends (Or, I was in June of 2007 when I first wrote this). On one level it was a vacation, on another level it was very much a business trip. One of the most important things a writer can do is collect new experiences, ideas, images, and places that can be filtered and focused and used as grist for the mill of our work.

For me, travel is one of the most important ways to develop new ideas and scenes for works in progress and works yet to be, in part because I’m a world driven writer. On this trip I had two particularly fabulous visits that will be incorporated into future work, as will the whole trip over time. Oh, and I might get a bit of blog fodder as well, if you hadn’t guessed.

First was a place called Woodleigh. It was one of those weird tourist attractions driven by an eccentric genius with intense focus. In this case it was a good sized parklike area studded with miniature versions of important British landmarks in varying scales, including a Tower of London big enough to walk through and a Westminster with doors only a few inches high but with two tons of lead used in the roofing. Fascinating and utterly bizarre, it will be a major and important setting for parts of WebMage book IV. In fact, the book will take place almost entirely in the Canadian Maritimes.

Second and even more important for me was Halifax and in particular, The Citadel—an 1850s era British fortress with a mix of kilted re-enactors and actual soldiers manning it. The place was fantastic and I literally couldn’t move without getting story ideas. In all I collected scenes and ideas there for WebMage IV, The Eye of Horus, Outside In, and a new as yet untitled book to be written after I’ve got some free time again, maybe 2-3 years out at the current rate. I took well over a hundred pictures and made a number of short cryptic notes that tie back to big ideas for various stories. A lot of it needs to marinate in the back of my head for a while, especially the future Halifax book, but some of it will come out more immediately with WebMage IV and Eye of Horus. 2013 update: It did indeed come out in both of those books.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog June 26 2007 and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Friday Cat Blogging (Belated)

May 18, 2013 in Friday Cat Blogging

Give in to your hatred, Luke.


How many times do we have to tell you you’re not Darth Vader?


How can anyone care about that movie anymore when there’s a new chair on the porch?


Couch over porch any day. The toes know, the toes know.


The toes know? Is that like a zen thing?


No, but I am a Zen thing. The Zen of behind the radiator.