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Character Profiling—How Much is Enough?

By Jack Strandburg

Many fiction writing “experts” stress the need to know your characters (at least the protagonist
and antagonist and perhaps one or two other major characters) as good as you know yourself.
The question arises—when do you get to know your characters? Before or during the writing of
the story. Some say before, some say during, others insist it’s a “mix.”

So goes the elusive topic of profiling.

If you Google “character profiles” you’ll get over 500,000 hits.
– What’s an author to do?
– How do you decide which one works for you?
– Do you look at a few and come up with your own template?
– What form of template do you use for character profiling? A questionnaire, perhaps using the
Marcel Proust model of 35 questions on character?

If you endeavor to fill out a comprehensive character profile template, it’s easy to become
overwhelmed.

Consider the components of a character profile:
– Name
– Physical description
– Birth and birthplace
– Wants and goals
– Family background
– Manner of speaking, laughing, eating, etc.
– Real property assets
– Education
– Hobbies
– Occupation
– Favorites (newspaper, color, food, etc.)
– Friends
– Enemies
– Co-workers
– Geographical data
– Sociological data
– Psychological data
– Military service
– Positive traits
– Negative traits

Years ago, I compiled a template (which I no longer use) based on the above categories. The
result was a spreadsheet containing over 250 rows of data. (which is precisely why I don’t use it
anymore)

Given this process, one could spend literally months answering the questions, and become
frustrated and get bogged down and feel as though the story will never get started, let alone
finished.

The question becomes (and I’m sure most of you have asked) is—what is necessary for a
workable character profile before you can start writing the story?

I submitted a survey to members of The Final Twist Writer’s Society for insight into their
character profiling process, using the following questions as a guide. For the sake of clarity, I
italicized their responses.

* Do you have your own profiling template / process, or do you use an existing template?

Most members either use a bare minimum profile, figuring out character as the story
progresses, or use no template at all.

* Do you use the Archetype and / or Enneagram template?
The members use these tools for major works (novels) only.

*How much detail do you feel is necessary for a major character before you can start
writing the story? Is there a standard or do you just “sense” it’s time to write the story?
Does it vary between stories? Is it different for a pantser, plotter, or plantser?

The members were generally in agreement here and offered good advice.
I want to know the physical description as a minimum to describe how their hair falls,
how their eyes change when the sun hits them, and their height as compared to objects or
other characters. Knowing every detail of a character is too confining, and to quote
Stephen King, “if I know how the story ends, what’s the fun in writing it?”
Knowing the key traits of the character should facilitate that character to undergo a
change at the end of the story. Too many traits can cause the reader to lose focus and
prevent them from emotionally engaging with the character.
Physical description, what they want, and obstacles in their way to getting what they
want—ergo, the conflict. This normally pertains only to the protagonist and antagonist.

*How do you decide on a character trait—whether they are agreeable or argumentative? Is
it based on their wants and goals? Do the events and the situations in the story dictate
their actions and reactions?

Use traits from other people, (actors / actresses) then throw their characters into
situations that challenge who they are and what they believe in. If, during the story, they
decide they want to head west instead of east, let them go.
Traits are based on wants and goals, and the events in the story will shape them into the
person they’ll become at the end.
Deciding what will create the most conflict in the story helps to define a character, and at
least two traits should contradict in order to create a complex character—someone the
reader will become engaged with.

*Does the amount of detail for characters differ whether it’s a novel or a short story?

Yes, for obvious reasons. Short stories are more in the moment, whereas in longer works
more details and interplay occur between characters. Also, in longer works, it might be
advisable or even necessary to keep track of character details for consistency. For
instance, to ensure age is in line with the story timeline and physical description doesn’t
change significantly, at least without a reason.

*How do you determine character background? Can you decide your protagonist is from
the Midwest and was abused as opposed to just being a spoiled brat from the West Coast?

The context of the events and the conflict / action between characters will often dictate
the character’s background. For instance, a protagonist who is a tough and grizzled
character might have grown up on a farm and worked with his hands, and maybe got into
several scrapes during his young adult years.

*Do pantsers, who write “from the seat of their pants” bother with a character profile?

Even pantsers need enough of a character profile in order to ensure the key
characteristics come to light when they confront their obstacles and engage in conflict.

In fact, if a pantser has only a vague idea of who their character is, how that character
reacts when faced with their first conflict will say a lot about them and give the writer
clues about how to use them in the story—or give the writer insight into what kind of
character they need to use in their place. Sometimes a minor character will steal the
show from a major character, which is always hilarious and/or surprising. Even the
narrator can talk their way into a minor part in the story.

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Giving Back

The Final Twist is a Houston-based writers group dedicated to supporting our authors, promoting reading, and giving back to the community at large. 

That last part is something we don’t crow about, we just do it. Usually. Historically, our giving has tended to be live events in support of writing, reading, or literacy, such as hosting NaNoWriMo write-ins and providing sustenance and awards for participants. These last two years have tossed our program to the winds. It’s difficult to hold in-person events in the midst of a pandemic.

In November, 2021, we found a different way to promote English literacy in our community and want to share what we found.

First, we learned one of the groups working to resettle Afghan refugees in Houston created a library for the Afghan community. How perfect is that for a group looking to support reading and literacy? While we were discussing how we could help with donations to the library, one of our members mentioned a company that publishes bi-lingual children’s books. What were the chances they’d have English and Pashto or English and Dari? We checked. They had both! While this meant we could do our small part by donating some bi-lingual books to the new library, the real purpose of this post is to share information about Houston Welcomes Refugees and Language Lizard.

Language Lizard is a for-profit business with a unique niche. They offer bi-lingual children’s products in 50 languages. 50! If you check out their website and blog, you’ll see they have a rather nice community outreach program of their own, including free multicultural lesson plans.

Houston Welcomes Refugees is a a registered 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization with a stated purpose of “Mobilizing our city to welcome refugees with compassion, hope, and honor as they resettle and start a new life in Houston.” They have a wonderful program that welcomes Afghan refugees, helps to get each family settled in an apartment, and most importantly, teams up the family with a welcome committee that helps with the move-in and stays in touch for six months.

Houston Welcomes Refugees provides many ways for all interested parties to help resettle our brave Afghan friends who aided U.S. soldiers during our time in Afghanistan. Whether you prefer to give of your time or donate from afar, there is something for everyone. If you’ve been wondering about how to help our newest residents, check out Houston Welcomes Refugees.

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Character Development for Pantsers

by Mark H. Phillips

My fellow TFT member, Jack Strandburg, gave a wonderful presentation at our last meeting on how to use the computer software, WriteItNow, to build believable characters and integrate them into a complex plot. Jack is a consummate planner and showed how technology can augment his already formidable ability to keep track of myriad strands of backstory and character detail. I realized two things: his technique showed amazing potential, and I would never be able to use it.

I’m a pantser rather than a planner, and I’m too old to change. A pantser dreams up a scenario or two, maybe has a special setting or a character or a bit of action in mind, and just sees what happens. I put pen to paper, play with it, see what spontaneously develops, and fix any problems in revision. The process is akin to lucid dreaming. I’m far too disorganized to create intricate outlines or character backstory ahead of the actual writing. And I’m far too much a Luddite to go through the learning curve of mastering complex software.

So, what can a poor pantser do to create vibrant protagonists and antagonists, quirky secondary players, and have a good feel for how they will behave in any given situation? I see no reason to reinvent the wheel from scratch. Why not just read biographies? I may be a disorganized writer, but I’m not a lazy one. I put in months of research, and that often involves reading countless biographies, histories, and journals. Why invent new people when there are so many fascinating people already out there, meticulously described, psychoanalyzed, photographed, documented, and explained?

An author who perfectly illustrates this technique is Mark Hodder. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been immersed in his wild and brilliant alternate history adventures of the explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton and the poet Algernon Swinburne. The first book in the series is The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack. The premise is that a time traveler inadvertently causes an 1840 attempt to assassinate Queen Victoria to succeed, altering history radically and resulting in a far more rapid diffusion of technology than actual history details. Repeated attempts to repair history or to exploit the time travelling tech introduce a plethora of wildly divergent timelines where different versions of Burton attempt to deal with the catastrophic consequences. Most of the main characters are versions of real historical people, from scientists Charles Babbage and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, prime ministers from Palmerston to Gladstone, and authors from Oscar Wilde to Bram Stoker to H. G. Wells. Hodder has done his homework. Burton comes across as a fully fleshed out character, because Hodder knows precisely how Burton really did react in a wide variety of stressful and outré situations, from visiting Mecca in disguise to trying to discover the source of the Nile.

Nor is Hodder the first to use the historical character of Burton in this manner. Philip José Farmer used Burton in his Hugo-winning Riverworld series, along with versions of Samuel Clemens, Hermann Göring, Cyrano de Bergerac, and Tom Mix.

A brief survey on Amazon yields multiple detective series that exploit historical figures as main characters:

  • Bertie and the Tinman by Peter Lovesy launches a series based on the Prince of Wales.
  • Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance by Gyles Brandreth launches a series featuring the famous author and wit.
  • These Honored Dead by Jonathan F. Putnam launches a series featuring a young Abraham Lincoln.
  • The Murder of Patience Brooke by J. C. Briggs launches a series with Charles Dickens as the central character.

The advantages of using historical figures as characters is that all the work of creating a detailed back story and consistent character profile has already been done by their biographers. I would suggest that there is an ethical mandate to do your research thoroughly and make your portrayal of the historical figures you’ve appropriated as accurate as possible. In no way is my suggested method easier or quicker than Jack’s technology assisted method. Meticulous and thorough research of both the person and the time period is required.

Of course, you can invent new characters by just appropriating parts of the historical biographies and building anew on top of the existing facts. Suppose I want to write a murder mystery set in the wealthy mansion of an egomaniacal newspaper magnate, with the main amateur detective a woman servant already prejudiced against her wealthy employers and harboring revolutionary secrets. I’ll create new names and alter the facts as much as I please, but in my own mind I’m writing about William Randolph Hearst, Emma Goldman, and La Cuesta Encantada. I’m not constrained by real history, but I’ve got all of the essential character traits and backstory I might need.

What about secondary characters? You don’t want to do months of research on a relatively minor character, but you still want them to be memorable and consistent. Here I take advantage of my addiction to watching classic movies. The Hollywood studio system had whole stables of contract character actors, skilled at playing a particular type. When Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, or Elisha Cook, Jr. walked on screen, the audience knew them quickly and efficiently because they were used to seeing them playing essentially the same type in many previous films. You don’t have to tell your reader what you’re doing, but when I need a prissy, sarcastic, functionary, I picture Eric Blore. Once I’ve got that actor in mind, my character is going to behave consistently throughout my story based on my seeing him perform the same character in dozens of films. If I need a fuzzy-minded bumbler, I’ve got Nigel Bruce. If I need a crazed fanatical scientist, I’ve got Patrick Magee. If I need a cynical, world-weary police chief with a bad attitude, I’m going to imagine Simon Oakland. I essentially cast my stories like a producer or director would. Two of my go-to writing resources are David Quinlen’s The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Movie Character Actors and Quinlan’s Film Stars.

If you’re a planner and comfortable with tech, by all means check out a program such as WriteItNow. But if you are a pantser who wants to just start writing and see where the story goes, try reading up on some historical figures, select a few character actors to round out the cast, and throw them all into some stressful situations. I’m often amazed at what my subconscious produces.

Mark H. Phillips is the author of The Ness & Guthrie Blues, Resqueth Revolution, and a plethora of short stories. He’s also co-author of the Eva Baum mystery series.

Just Released: The Ness & Guthrie Blues

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Colussus

Members of The Final Twist are learning to make video book trailers. Posts for the next few weeks will showcase our results.

Released from Reality , the newest anthology from The Final Twist, contains sixteen short stories featuring mysteries that take unexpected directions in science, technology, sports, history, medicine, physics, and space exploration–plus original fairy tales and other fantasies. Colussus is one of those stories. Take a look on YouTube.

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Rube Waddell

Members of The Final Twist are learning to make video book trailers. Posts for the next few weeks will showcase our results.

Released from Reality , the newest anthology from The Final Twist, contains sixteen short stories featuring mysteries that take unexpected directions in science, technology, sports, history, medicine, physics, and space exploration–plus original fairy tales and other fantasies. Rube Waddell Beats the Devil is one of those stories. Take a look on YouTube.

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Rosa Red’s Jewel

Members of The Final Twist are learning to make video book trailers. Posts for the next few weeks will showcase our results.

Released from Reality , the newest anthology from The Final Twist, contains sixteen short stories featuring mysteries that take unexpected directions in science, technology, sports, history, medicine, physics, and space exploration–plus original fairy tales and other fantasies. Rosa Red’s Jewel is one of those stories. Take a look on YouTube.

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Descriptions of Music in Writing

by Mark H. Phillips

Fiction writing is mute. Audible books aside, traditional writing is just silent, black ink on white paper, and at a drastic disadvantage to the elaborately scored fiction of movies, TV, opera, and stage. Strip off Tangerine Dream’s score from Sorcerer, Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho, Nino Rota’s music for The Godfather, and John Williams score for Star Wars, and you have amputated the beating hearts of these films. Print fiction usually lacks any amputatable musical heart to begin with. Many writers find it difficult to adequately describe music, aside from just transcribing the lyrics of pop songs, arguably the least important element of the music. I discovered just how hard it was to write fiction about music when creating my new blues-scholar-meets-alien novel, The Ness & Guthrie Blues. My writing group, The Final Twist, collaborates on a new themed anthology each year, and next year’s theme is, of course, music. Let’s examine several strategies of meeting the artistic hurdle of writing about music.

The simplest approach is the one I take in The Ness & Guthrie Blues: I just tell the reader to set down their Kindle, find the referenced recordings on YouTube, listen to the songs, and then return to reading. My excuse for doing it this way is that the recordings I’ve referenced are extraordinary. My target audience of music aficionados/collectors are going to want to listen to the actual music; my pallid written descriptions of them would be completely inadequate. Besides, the YouTube music is free, easily referenced, and supercool. My descriptions of the music are essentially liner notes, providing biographical info, historical context, and production details.

My models for this approach were the Lovejoy novels by Jonathan Gash and The Vinyl Detective series by Andrew Cartmell. Each features obsessive know-it-all protagonists who live and breathe information about their respective treasures. I’ve always enjoyed learning things while I read, and I wanted to write a book that would enable me to share my extensive research in an entertaining way. Merging my protagonist’s search for ultra-rare recordings with a science fiction mystery, I wrote what I want to read. There must be readers out there for my work—who hasn’t amassed a minor but precious record/CD collection, and who doesn’t like a good misunderstood alien story?

All of the recordings I reference in The Ness & Guthrie Blues are real. Cartmell centers each of his novels on a fictional recording. He can’t just send his readers out to YouTube. But the technique is largely the same. He uses easily referenced real recordings and artists to circle in on his fictional rarity. The reader can get a pretty good idea of what’s intended with just a little aural research. Here’s a passage from Cartmell’s Victory Disc (2018). He’s describing a recording of a swing jazz band made up of British flyers during WWII who beat the famous Glenn Miller Army Air Force ensemble in battle-of-the-bands competition:

The playing of the Flare Path Orchestra was virtuosic, both bluesy and swinging. They also sounded startlingly modern. I might have been listening to a Ted Heath recording from the late 1950s. It had the same assurance and densely organized quality. But there was a quirkiness to the instrumentation that put me in mind of Spike Jones and, from a later era, Esquivel. It still sounded fresh today, first-class British jazz played by a bunch of young guys who were fighting, and dying, in a war against the forces of darkness.

If I’m casually reading along, the reference to big bands, wartime, swing bands is enough for me to know what’s meant. If I want a clearer picture of this fictional band’s sound, I can easily listen to a little Glenn Miller, Ted Heath, Spike Jones, and Esquivel. How deep the reader wants to dive is left to them, but there are rewards for those willing to make the effort.

A subtler technique is to bypass the music itself and try to jump directly to the affects the music is intended to evoke through the use of alternative images or other associations. In “The Crooner,” a short story in Kazuo Ishiguro’s collection Nocturnes (2009), a Polish guitarist in Rome tries to recreate the music of an American singer and the effect the records had on his lonely mother trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Ishiguro eschews a direct account of the music and describes what that music was meant to evoke, what it felt like to listen to it.

I tried to make it sound like America, sad roadside bars, big long highways, and I guess I was thinking too of my mother, the way I’d come into the room and see her on the sofa gazing at her record sleeve with its picture of an American road, or maybe the singer sitting in an American car. What I mean is, I tried to play it so my mother would have recognized it as coming from the same world, the world on the record sleeve.

This sort of description is deliberately underspecified. A hundred different readers may imagine a hundred different songs from this description, yet whatever they do come up with will resonate in a deeply personal way. Ishiguro leaves it up to the reader to supply the inner associations so long as the result is close to what the music meant to the character’s mother.

Another example of this technique is from Do Not Sell at Any Price by Amanda Petrusich (2014). She’s describing a rare Cajun 78 recording where the singer’s voice collapses near the end.

“Sur le Borde de l’Eau” is something else entirely. I don’t know what Gaspard is going on about (I don’t speak enough French), but I’m certain the payoff isn’t narrative. His voice is so saturated with longing that it seems to hover midair, a helium balloon that’s lost too much gas. It is tenuous and malfunctioning and then it disintegrates entirely, like the best/worst relationship you’ve ever had, like a ghost disappearing into the mist.

More specific images and associations work for authors who want more control and rely less on what the reader brings with them. Here’s a passage from E. Annie Proulx’s “Heart Songs” (1986):

His accordion made a nasal, droning undernote like bagpipes, broken every few bars by circus music phrases, flaring, brassy elephant sounds. The effect was curious but not disagreeable. It gave the music a sardonic, rollicking air, like Long John Silver dancing a hornpipe, his wooden leg dotting blood on the captured deck.

Stream of consciousness can evoke what a performance feels like from the inside. This passage is from Mister Satan’s Apprentice by Adam Gussow (1998) describing a harmonica player’s first open-mike session with a real backing band in front of a raucous audience:

There was a brief, almost imperceptible hush after the rhythm section swung into gear and I leaned toward the mike. I was hovering, searching for a handhold, then grabbing and plunging in, knife-edging my blue thirds like Nat and Big Walter, yelping with panic and anxious yearning. Somebody was clapping in time. I yelped again, kicked from behind by the drums. A sudden electrical storm seemed to surge around me, hunger and rippling expectancy reaching out from all sides, supercharging the atmosphere. “Don’t stop!” shouted somebody at the bar. I shivered and bore down hard, cut through the swirling surf, found the taut cable and held it, refused to let go, was dragged along the glass-strewn bottom, cut and bleeding, screaming—it was hot down here, burning the skin off my shoulders, scraping the skin off my knees, elbows, and chest, bursting through my heart as I streamed back to the surface, gasping, on fire. “Do it, goddammit!” somebody yelled. Flames licked at me, then spread wildly; the room was an open mouth—hot, demanding, loving, ferocious, dizzying. The drums hurled me forward, the organ boiled me alive. I held on. All I could do was hold on. I held and held, streaming.

Contrast the above techniques with the most common, older approach of just ladling on lots of general and abstract adjectives, a technique that rarely moves the reader to any specific or profound impression. Here’s a passage from The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux (1910, translator unknown):

The voice without a body went on singing; and certainly Raoul had never in his life heard anything more absolutely and heroically sweet, more gloriously insidious, more delicate, more powerful, in short, more irresistibly triumphant. He listened to it in a fever and he now began to understand how Christine Daaé was able to appear one evening, before the stupefied audience, with accents of a beauty hitherto unknown of a superhuman exaltation, while doubtless still under the influence of the mysterious and invisible stranger.

As we shall see below, this use of abstract adjectives seems unavoidable when the music is unearthly or weird. It’s hard to imagine what else H. P. Lovecraft could do in his eerie “The Music of Erich Zann” (1922). If someone were making a movie adaptation of this story, it would be a near impossible task to select or commission a piece that would adequately capture the horror Lovecraft wanted to evoke.

It would be useless to describe the playing of Erich Zann on that dreadful night. It was more horrible than anything I had overheard, because I could now see the expression on his face, and could realize that this time the motive was stark fear. He was trying to make a noise; to ward something off or drown something out—what, I could not imagine, awesome though I thought it must be. The playing grew fantastic, delirious, hysterical, yet kept to the last the qualities of genius which I knew this strange old man possessed. . . .Louder and louder, wilder and wilder, mounted the shrieking and whining of the desperate viol. . . .I could almost see shadowy satyrs and Bacchanals dancing and whirling insanely through seething abysses of clouds and smoke and lightning. And then I thought I heard a shriller, steadier note that was not from the viol; a calm, deliberate, purposeful, mocking note from far away in the west.

Here the lack of specificity is a common technique in horror writing where the scariest monsters are those that are never clearly seen. Whatever the reader imagines will be scarier for him than any specific details the writer can describe. For a perfect visual analog of this technique, watch The Cat People (1942).

Music is such an important and ubiquitous element in our lives that to leave it out of our writing seems perverse. Hopefully at least one of the examples described above will assist you in recapturing music in an otherwise mute medium.

Mark H. Phillips

Learn more about Mark H. Phillips and his stories.

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Released from Reality Release Day!!!

Released from Reality – Tales of science fiction and illusion, offering unique visions of technology, sports, politics, history, and space exploration, as well as new and whimsical versions of old fairy tales—plus several supernatural fantasies.

print version coming soon

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And the Winners Are…

Colossus

In 1897 Galveston, a young woman aeronaut and a smitten engineer must save her father’s dirigible from a megalomaniacal filibusterer. Steampunk, Texas-style.

Don’t Call Me Rumple You Know

The queen had guessed his name and banished him from her kingdom. But his adventure has just begun.

Evangeline

A forbidden love affair in a cemetery on a cold winter’s day. Are love and hate so powerful they survive beyond the grave?

Fey Fox Fiasco

Kids are disappearing. Polly and Kevin brave a mind-bending wonderland, trying to return them to reality.

Immaculate Misconception

A remarkably candid autobiography prepared by a self-aware and self-directed Artificial Intelligence.

Legend of the Guardian Wolves

While Vesuvius’s fire destroyed Pompeii, the Guardian Wolves battled to push back the Evil spirits that wanted to destroy the earth.  Humans, sworn to hide the wolves in their bodies, and to fight with them in the battles that will come.  One such human is Cara.  Only 16 when she is told that she was one of the Chosen, she struggles to understand, believe, and accept her fate with the wolf Shadow when they answer the final call.

Meadowlark

During the ordinary rhythms of life, reality often fades, and the impossible takes on form and substance. I like to think it occurs at twilight; at least, that’s when it happened on Meadowlark. A rising moon cast an eerie, crystal-blue pall over the planet. A hush fell on the forest. Diamonds fell from the sky. And horses danced.

Plant Food

On a forgotten world, a team of biologists make a frightening discovery.

Prince on Demand

OB/GYN specialist Dr. Dan “Catcher” McDonald—a motorcyclist who rides with Jessie Carr—lies on the floor of his examining room in a pool of blood. Can Jessie track the woman who fled the scene and discover why she did it?

Rosa Red’s Jewel

A fairy tale for modern times.

Rube Waddell Beats the Devil

In 1906 New Orleans, a voodoo-infused baseball game will decide if a famous pitcher gets to keep his throwing arm, and his soul.

Shady Timbers Bigfoot

Three friends in Shady Timbers, Oregon discover a tunnel left over from World War II research and are brave enough to challenge it. What they find is an abandoned research facility a mountain range away that holds the secret to two mysteries, one going back to the first sighting of Bigfoot and one very personal and recent.

Spirit Hill

Biker chick/sleuth Jessie Carr devises a plan to deter teenagers who have been desecrating a cemetery near a Hill Country ghost town, where a famed Texas Ranger is laid to rest. Based on a true story from Texas history.

The Wizard’s Ring of Courage

Howard’s dream is to become a wizard, but the village bully has dubbed him “Howard the Coward.” Can Howard prove the bully wrong, defeat the Swamp Siren, the witch, and the Emerald Dragon and earn The Ring of Courage?

Unidentical Twins

What if the Leonardo Da Vinci of the 21st century, arguably the smartest man in the world, with all the money and resources of the world available to him, decides to make a “better” clone of himself and succeeds? Would the world be better off as a result of his actions or not?

What a Difference 100 Years Makes

A prince and a woke sleeping beauty correspond

Available in print and ebook 10/24/21

Link to eBook version

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Released from Reality

Available in print and ebook 10/24/2021

Link to eBook version

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