Dave Gross is the author of Prince of Wolves, Master of Devils, and the upcoming Queen of Thorns. His other recent work appears in the anthologies Tales of the Far West and Shotguns v. Cthulhu. You can read some of his stories for free at paizo.com or follow him on Twitter @frabjousdave or frabjousdave.blogspot.com.
After a couple of decades editing and writing for shared-world settings, I still enjoy playing in someone else’s sandbox. The advantages of building your sand castle in a popular setting make up for those occasions when you scoop up a cat turd. You can avoid those unpleasant surprises, or make the most of them, by approaching tie-in fiction as an archaeologist and historian.
Do Your Research
When approaching a tie-in project, you’ll start with either a wealth of source material—as in a big property like Star Wars—or with only a few pages of concepts—as in a brand-new setting like Far West. Each situation offers a different advantage. If your strengths lie in research and interpolation, you’ll love poring over dozens of volumes in search of details to bring your story to life. If the material is well organized, with a wiki for instance, it’ll be a breeze. With smaller settings, you’ll enjoy the freedom to invent within an established atmosphere. I’ve written novels for which my research filled a banker’s box and some for which my research fit on two pages. Each method has its pleasures.
Obey the Canon
Whether you’re developing from existing elements or creating new ones, it’s crucial not to break with the established “physics” of the world. When pitching a story for a steampunk/wuxia/Wild West setting, I assumed incorrectly that magic was a part of the world. Thankfully that happened at the pitch stage, so the editor gently pointed out my mistake, and I moved on to a different pitch. When I write for Pathfinder Tales, the editor asks me to footnote any mentions of spells or monsters from the game—or to point out where I’m inventing something new—to help him make sure my story jibes with the source material. As with any writing, the better your communication with the editor, the less pain you’ll endure in revision.
Resolve Existing Conflicts
Just like the real world, large settings like the Forgotten Realms occasionally produce conflicting references to a single location, time period, or character. Sometimes these vagaries are intentional, as with multiple interpretations of a religious prophecy. But discrepancies can slip through, just as archaeologists unearth contrary evidence or historians disagree in their interpretations of that evidence. If your editor can’t resolve the question and it’s left to you to make the call, make the most of it. Pick the interpretation that best serves your story, or the one that best reflects the “truth” of the setting. At the same time, trust your editor to make sure that writers working at the same time each have their own corners of the sandbox, minimizing conflicts.
Beware of Apocrypha
Fans love to add to their favorite tie-in settings, as do third-party-publishers (3PP). Take care to avoid both fan-created and 3PP content. Not only is that extra material unofficial, it’s also legally off-limits. This situation is especially dangerous to writers who have read widely from a setting’s source material. Recently I discovered some fan-created material in a big folder of official source material, reminding me of this danger.
Extrapolate the Small Stuff
Even the most comprehensive setting won’t provide you with all the details you need for a rich story, and that’s where the real fun begins. You may know everything else about the goddess of death, but when you need the equivalent of the sign of the cross for a frightened character, it’s your moment to add a new detail. Some of my favorite additions to established settings have been the smallest: rituals, courtesies, and curses. The key is not to throw in something just because it’s cool by itself; it should make sense within the existing setting, so find a way to link the small to the big. For example, in a country where the authorities impale criminals on giant forks, “shooting the tines” might be the most offensive gesture. Do it well, and other authors will use your invention as their source material in the next book.
Writing tie-in fiction isn’t for everyone. Some precious souls look down on the work, despite its appreciative audience and many excellent examples of the form. And maybe you just don’t enjoy research; I know at least one brilliant writer who has done excellent tie-in work in the past but who avoids it now because it’s too much like studying for an exam. Still, if you’re a fan of a setting or its genre, if you play well with others, and if you do your research, you can have a lot of fun in the sandbox and uncover far more treasure than turds.