Novel Makers Week 3: Sketch Your Characters, Setting, and Problem

Week 3 introduction.

It’s time to start developing your idea.

Your goals

Here’s what we want to accomplish this week.

  • Memorize key creative principles & techniques
  • Sketch the idea for your story
  • Select a story you will plot

Good luck!

Discovery Questions & Activities

Question 1: how do you get and develop ideas? (2 hrs)

  • Read Lesson 5: How do you get and develop ideas? (you can skip the link to No Clue, No Solution if you want because you’ve already done it, but you still might want to read it anyway)
  • As you read, please fill in the answers to the test 2 study guide.
  • Post in the comments one insight you picked up about getting and developing ideas
  • Take the test at the end of the week

Question 2: What’s my setting and what’s cool or interesting about it? (3 hrs)

  • Read through step 3 of Lesson 6: Develop your idea – Character, Setting, & Problem
  • Create a sketch for each of the following:
    • Magic (if applies). Include the bullets listed in the lesson in your sketch. You may want to generate multiple options for your magic before you settle on one.
    • Creatures (if applies). Include the items listed in the lesson in your sketch.
    • Technology (if applies). Include the items listed in the lesson in your sketch.
    • Natural aspects. Your goal is to make it clear in your mind AND find zing.
    • Man-made aspects. Your goal is to make it clear in your mind AND find zing.

Question 3: Who are my characters and what’s cool and interesting about them? (3 hrs)

Question 4: What’s my cool MOTHR? (3 hrs)

  • Read steps 5 -6 of Lesson 6: Develop your idea – Character, Setting, & Problem
  • Brainstorm 5-10 different MOTHRS you might make a story from. If none of them carry much zing, list of 5-10 more until you find at least 3 that do.
  • Use the questions in lesson 6, step 5 to help you develop the options that pull you.
  • Select your top 3 MOTHRs and put them in the story setup form I explain in the lesson. Road test them on some friends to see which one they like best. If you need to repeat the last few steps to get some MOTHRs that carry a lot of voltage for you, do it.
  • Select the story idea with the most zing for you. This is the story you will write.
  • Post the top 3 story setups you created in the comments and tell us which one is for the story you will write.

Activity Details

Test Guide – Getting & Developing Ideas

  • What are the three things you need to be creative?
  • What are the 6 parts you need to develop ideas for?
  • How does selective attention affect getting ideas?
  • True or false. You can sketch all your good ideas up front.
  • What is zing?
  • What is the drag net?
  • How do you hunt with a purpose?
  • What are 3 sources for zing?
  • What is creative Q&A?

39 Responses to Novel Makers Week 3: Sketch Your Characters, Setting, and Problem

  1. Greg Baum says:

    Question 1:

    Two insights: 1) I re-did the activity of picking 5-10 books and writing down what I liked about them. I found it much more helpful this time (than when we did it in week one) because here I had five specific categories (setting, character, problem, plot, text) I could focus on. I saw a lot of interesting patterns that helped me identify what I want to write. 2) I found the model of creativity as problem-solving to be very empowering and I really enjoyed the examples of zing. I’ve kept my own version of a zing notebook for years now, but what I took away from this week’s material was using creative Q&A and research to flesh out the zing I’d already captured.

    Question 4 (Story setups):

    1) Recovering in a nursing home after her hip replacement, Viola Brasher is counting the days until she can go home. When a fellow resident dies, though, Viola is the only one who believes it was murder. She sets out to discover the killer—against the best efforts of the staff and residents of Saint-Rémy des Peupliers. As she comes closer to her goal, Viola realizes that she too is in danger. Will she discover the murderer before he finds her?

    2) When the gardening shed of Viola Brasher’s nursing home burns down, everyone blames the ancient wiring. Everyone, that is, except Viola. Convinced that the gardening shed held a darker secret, Viola begins to search out the history of Saint-Rémy des Peupliers. As she unravels the web of lies surrounding the old plantation and the gardening shed, Viola discovers that the arsonist isn’t finished and that she and the residents are in danger. She may be able to find the arsonist—but will she be able to convince the sheriff?

    3) Viola Brasher is happily settled in her nursing home until she starts seeing a woman who everyone else claims doesn’t exist. When Viola searches for answers, she comes up against an unlikely wall: Ninian Ruggs, fellow resident of Saint-Rémy des Peupliers and Viola’s gentleman caller. Even a string of thefts within Saint-Rémy don’t alter Ruggs’s resolve. As Viola pursues her investigation, her relationship with Ruggs begins to dissolve. Will she be able to learn the identity of the mystery woman before she loses everything?

    I will be writing the first story setup.

    • John Brown says:


      That good feedback on the first exercise. I’ll have to incorporate that in the next round.

      I think I like the first one best as well. Although the second one pulls me too. I think the difference is the stated stakes. The third one seems to muddle a bit in the middle. And I’m not sure what the stakes are. It’s going to be interesting to see what you do with these folks.

    • John Brown says:


      I’ve been thinking about your setups. You’ve chosen a very difficult-seeming setting and age group. Many people have negative feelings towards nursing homes. Your challenge, I think, from the get-go is going to be to make readers see the place and people in a new light. Humor, spunk, pluck, and wit might be the best tools. At least, that’s what I would need. I may not be in your audience, so don’t try to please me, but if you agree, I think you might want to give your character an appealing adjective to define her. And maybe hint at the delightful characters we’re going to find at Saint-Remy. Does a pairing of two characters pose any possibilities to you, i.e., does she have a sidekick? A love-sick older man? And she’s a very proper high-class lady? And they set off on this together or its a subplot? Or something else where we have some variety? Just an idea of a line to generate ideas along 🙂

      • Greg Baum says:


        Thanks for the ideas. It seems we’re thinking along similar (although not identical) lines. I have something cooking, and now I’ll consider ways to incorporate hints of those elements into the story setup.

  2. Anthony says:

    Question 1:
    I was able to engage in some creative Q & A with some other people as I was on a day trip in the car. I presented them with a 5’5″ woman, and asked one what she knew about the person. She added some personality and physical characteristics, and then the other person embellished the personality, and gave other specifics, once there was a good character sketch from that, I asked about who was her most significant relationship with, and one thing led to another, and I had a whole web of characters, interactions, cities, potential conflicts, and further points to jump off from. They came up with things I never would have on my own, and it was all done in less than an hour. Quite productive use of what would otherwise have been down time.

    Question 4:
    1) Matt Roberts is jealous of his twin brother’s popularity because of his ability to turn himself and other objects invisible, while Matt can only see invisible objects and people. When Matt witnesses a murder committed by an invisible assassin and an unconscious patsy left to take the blame he decides to prove this man’s innocence. But will he be able to find out who is actually responsible while being pursued by the assassin?

    2) When Stockton Bradley is mistaken for a recent recruit to the Silent Hand gang the police ask him to infiltrate the mob to discover who the leader is, and then set up a sting operation. But will he be able to use his ability to sense when magic is in use or block others from using magic to keep his cover intact and himself alive after the Silent Hand gets wind of a mole in their midst?

    3) There have been a rash of murders in Port Chalmers, a canal city bordering on the frontier of Jefferson. When Basil Rashburn and his rookie partner Chervil Worthington are assigned to the case they can’t agree on how the investigation should be conducted. Will they be able to solve the case and develop a working relationship despite their conflicting methods of investigation?

    I went a bit far afield with my Character Sketches, and any of these characters could show up in any of these other stories. I go back and forth on the first 2. I could just as easily go with either of them. Feel free to persuade me to the one that grabs your attention. Otherwise, I’ll probably do some initial plotting on both of them, and see which one has more pull to it at that stage. I might come back to the other one later on.

    • John Brown says:

      I really like the idea of #2.

      #1 would be better for me without the jealousy at the beginning. I’m just not interested in someone who is jealous. That’s just my taste. Maybe if you also tweaked the last line? For example.

      Matt is a mild-mannered Gifted, who has to hide the fact that he can see invisible objects and people. When he witnesses a murder committed by an invisible assassin and the crime pinned on an innocent man, he can’t walk away. But will he be able to identify and prove who the real killer is when he becomes the assassin’s next target?

      That might or might not work for you. You must follow your zing 🙂

      #3 seems to be more focused about their working methods than anything else. Makes it feel low-stakes to me, and that drains my interest. I wonder if bringing the murders to the fore and giving an adjective to describe each of the characters wouldn’t help? That dominant impression thing. Adjectives that perhaps clash. By-the-book vs vigilante. Methodical vs. rash. Is the main obstacle their relationship? It might be worth some time to generate a number of other options for the main obstacle. Give them something incredibly difficult to fight against and let the clash of their personalities add to it.

      This is, of course, a buddy story like Lethal Weapon and Sherlock Holmes. With Lethal Weapon, we have an old veteran cop who wants to minimize unnecessary risks and make it into retirement and a young volatile cop with suicide wish that does the opposite. The desires clash. And it’s lovely. My personal taste, when murder is on the line, is for a gnarly problem with the relationship added in to complicate it and make it delicious. If you think about relationship stories and look at love stories, you can see those like Romeo and Juliet and Sabrina which are about the relationship, that’s the spine, and those like Miss Congeniality or Sherlock Holmes where the relationship is weaved into the spine. I’m suggesting you think about generating some options along the lines of weaving it in to see if you find any you like.

      I’ll be very interested to see what you ultimately land on.

    • Greg Baum says:


      I really like the second and third ideas. Of the two of them, I probably would pick the third one, but that’s just because I’m a sucker for a murder mystery. I really like that in all of these stories, the characters have serious limitations instead of unstoppable magic powers.

  3. Rich says:

    I’m still breaking down the books from last week. I have well over 6 hours alone in reading all of the posts linked here on, and the posts linked in those other links. Just sayin’. Also, since I’m not sure if it is that this is my busy time of year or that this is a lot for someone to get at once, I feel like breaking down a book a week, as I learn more, benefits me more. You might take that into consideration.

    An insight that I hadn’t considered was looking at each objective, instead of the story as a whole. The word objective makes things more mission-oriented. I like the hunting zing, tying the zings together is going to be fun.

    I had a pretty good idea of what I was playing around with for a story idea. The major problem I think I always have is the story problem. I find characters I like easily, settings aren’t hard to come by for me, but a coherent problem usually is. So, here is what I’ve come up with for a story setup:

    1) When a witch with a powerful grimoire takes over a town and it’s people to fuel a spell that will open a gateway to the realm of the dead and free an imprisoned spirit to serve her, will the half-breed witchfinder, Oliver Hope, be able to stop her in time to save the lives of the townsfolk?

    2) When a condemned-spirit finds a way to break free of her Warlock captor, and take revenge on the people who bound her to her spellbook, will Oliver Hope be able to stop her?

    3) When an innocent child of a Witch and a Warlock falls in love with a witchfinder, will she be able to resist the pull of her parents’ spellbook or be happy with one who would persecute all she has ever known?

    I sort of hope to incorporate all three. 😀

    • John Brown says:


      It’s good feedback to know the time it’s taking. Let me make sure I understand your suggestion. Are you saying that you think it would be more helpful to break 1 book down each week for 3 weeks instead of 3 in 1 week?

      Your story ideas are interesting. The remind me of The Last Apprentice series.

      I want to suggest you to develop them a little more. Right now you have the big event, but I’m missing the opposition. And I’m not asking you to do this for the setup’s sake. It’s to help clarify the problem in your mind.

      Let’s look at #1. The witch takes over the town. Oliver sets out to stop her. But what’s the big obstacle. I need you to clarify the second when. This means the will he sentence needs a “when” as in “but will the half-breed witchfinder be
      able to stop her when [fill in the big obstacle]”

      #2. Same thing. “Will Oliver be able to stop her when [fill in the big obstacle]”

      #3. On this one, I need you to restate it so the problem is clearer. I need to know the exact stakes. Is he going to come after her parents and kill them or what? Here’s an example. It’s not your story, but it gives the idea of what I mean by bringing the problem into sharp focus.

      The practical-joking daughter of a Witch and Warlock meets a boy from over the mountain in a close call with wolves. As their relationship grows, they fall in love, but WHEN she discovers he’s a Witchfinder and hunting for her parents, she ends the relationship. But WILL she be able to protect them WHEN the only way to do that is to kill the boy she still loves?

      This is a classic gunslinger-lawman romance story. Think about You’ve Got Mail.

      • Rich says:

        I thought we were supposed to simplify things. He has obstacles coming from his race, a town of people slowly falling under the power of the book, and from his past. I have much more worked out on this story than I posed in those questions, but the stakes are the collective lives of the townsfolk. . .and much more if the vengeful spirit is freed with all of its knowledge and powers.

      • Rich says:

        Also, yeah, I was talking about breaking down a book a week for a couple of weeks.

      • John Brown says:

        Yes, simplify in order to clarify the main obstacle. There are indeed lots of conflicts and complications in a novel, but this exercise is to clarify what the main one is that needs to be overcome.

      • Rich says:

        1) When a witch with a powerful grimoire takes over a town and it’s people to fuel a spell that will open a gateway to the realm of the dead and free an imprisoned spirit to serve her, will the half-breed witchfinder, Oliver Hope, be able to stop her in time to save the lives of the townsfolk, when he learns the spirit is that of his dead sister?

        2) When a condemned-spirit finds a way to break free of her Warlock captor, and take revenge on the people who bound her to her spellbook, will Oliver Hope be able to stop her, if it costs him the life of his new found love?

        3) When an innocent child of a Witch and a Warlock falls in love with a witchfinder, will she be able to resist the pull of her parents’ spellbook and be with Oliver at the cost of her mother’s soul?


      • John Brown says:

        Oooh, #1 is so much more interesting. Boom! His sister has been freed. One thing that would really charge it is if he had to harm or imprison his sister again. Right now it’s just his freed sister, so that doesn’t present much of a dilemma in my mind. But, boy, that one is much better.

        #2 has great stakes. Very interesting. You might want to break it into two sentences to give yourself enough room to really clarify the obstacle.

        When a condemned-spirit finds a way to break free of her Warlock captor, and take revenge on the people who bound her to her spellbook, Oliver Hope sets out to stop her. But will he be able to [fill in the blank that allows him to stop the spirit] when it [explain why it will cost him his new found love].

        Another good one.

        #3. There’s good stuff here, but we’re missing the goal. When she falls in love, what? She gives up her pursuit of magic? We need the MC to have a goal that is then thwarted by the big obstacle. This one needs more work to get all that clear.

        Rich, these are really shaping up. This is great stuff.

      • Rich says:

        3) is more about her choosing between the her parents and their killer.

        2) is about his new love interest picking up the book that traps souls.

        1) His sister is the spirit bound to the book, and he didn’t know it.

      • Rich says:

        I was beginning to think I was too dumb for this.

      • John Brown says:

        Nonsense. Learning sometimes requires significant effort. Struggle even.

      • John Brown says:

        So give me a new set of setups.

        When X happens, MC makes this goal, but will he be able to Y, when this big honking problem or dilemma stands in his way?

      • Greg Baum says:


        I really like the first story prompt. It’s got a lot of stuff that ‘zings’ for me: the powerful witch, the imprisoned spirit, and the witch-hunter, and of course the dilemma that Oliver faces.

  4. John Brown says:

    From John McClain.

    Question 1
    True story: I was reading the comments to a post at Monster Hunter Nation sometime after doing the reading for this lesson. In the comments, someone referred to Larry as “The Mountain That Writes.” I immediately started asking myself questions like: “What kind of stories would a mountain write and how would a mountain write a story?” I had unconsciously slipped into what Janci Patterson referred to as Twenty Questions. Prior to this lesson I would probably have just laughed and moved on.

    Question 4
    Note: United Worlds Federated Republic (UWFR)

    1. Frontier Fleet was not often allowed within UWFR space. When Admiral Mike Fletcher is ordered to deploy his task group to the UWFR member world Aurora to put down a violent insurgency, he sees an opportunity to clear his name and be reinstated to Peace Fleet. But will he be able to defeat the insurgents while keeping the system Governor, his ex-wife, from stabbing him in the back again.

    2. Frontier Fleet has been the dumping ground for Fleet for over a century. It is a dumping ground from which no one has returned in the last 20 years. When Lt. Aaron McMichael reports for duty with Frontier Fleet, he knows his one chance of getting his life back is to find out why. But will he succeed where so many professional intelligence officers have failed?

    3. Piracy and the slave trade thrive out on the fringes of known human space and they keep Frontier Fleet busy. When Commodore Wallace Kincaid’s squadron tracks a group of pirates to an unknown colony world, he knows his duty is to kill or capture the pirates and report the existence of this colony to the UWFR. But duty is a two-way street and the UWFR has certainly failed in its duty to Kincaid and his spacers and marines.

    I’m leaning toward writing #3.

    • John Brown says:

      What a funny comment on Larry’s site. Glad to see the Creative Q&A stuff is working.

      I like #3 best as well because I think it has more zing for me. Piracy, slave trade, good guys trying to stop it. That’s awesome stuff. At the same time, the last sentence showing the obstacle and stakes is mushy. I need something more specific. What is so compelling that this good guy might think of becoming a bad guy? Or if he doesn’t become a bad guy, what would tempt him to allow slavers to continue their horrible trade? Young girls for sex and or sent to some labor that will kill or maim them early. Pirates who rape and pillage. Murder of the innocent. Etc. Is this guy really so shallow that a few missed promotions makes him think these kinds of atrocities are okay? Does that make sense?

      I like the second one next best. The whole secret of people disappearing. But it’s not clear to me what the real problem is. What does it mean that nobody returns? And I’m not sure how him finding out why gives him his life back.

      Being assigned to Frontier Fleet is a death sentence. Nobody lives more than three years. When the carousing Lt. is assigned there, he realizes that he’d better figure out how to survive. . .

      Or is he being sent there because it’s secret and he’s an actual spy? If so, it needs to be restated what the factions are.

      Something is happening with Frontier Fleet [fill it in]. HQ sends in the sarcastic Lt. McMichael as an undercover agent to find out why. But WILL McMichale be able to bring down the shady organization WHEN to do so will imprison the woman he’s come to love?

      That was a bit hasty, but do you see the addition of the obstacle?

      Try a few more options with these two.

      • John McClain says:

        Thanks, John and I concur. I was being too slavish to form and my sketches were too sketchy.

      • John McClain says:

        Here’s an updated version of #3. I’m still working on #2.

        3. Piracy and the slave trade thrive out on the fringes of known human space and they keep Frontier Fleet busy. When Commodore Wallace Kincaid’s squadron tracks a group of pirates to an uncharted colony world, he knows it is his duty is to rescue their captives. But will he survive long enough to rescue the captives since he is now outgunned by pirates backed by a sympathetic planetary population.

      • John Brown says:

        This is juicy. I’m losing some of the electricity with the last three words. It made it seem like, the pirates are big, but now they’re bigger. But I think something different is what makes it work.

        I mean, I see the problem. It’s a great problem. But how to state it so it pops?

        But will he be able to rescue the captives when the colony he thinks is supportive of the regime turns out to be rebels?

        But will he be able save his own life, let alone those of the captives, when the colony musters its overwhelming fleet to attack him?

        Or when the colony takes out most of his squadron?

        Can you make the obstacle even more gnarly and specific?

      • John Brown says:


        What if his squadron is captured and only him and a handful of his men and women are on the run?

        Now it’s REALLY hard for him to pull this off. What do you think about that?

      • John McClain says:

        I like it. The best part is I have no idea, now, how he’ll get into or out of that position. I think that’s part of the reason I had so much trouble with this exercise. I need to learn beat my plot ideas into submission while I’m working on a story setup. I knew what I meant but you couldn’t without several pages of backstory.

    • Greg Baum says:


      I like all three of these, but I’m leaning towards the first two (and probably number 1). I like the politics and the tangled relationship and the scope of the conflict a lot.

  5. John Brown says:

    Man, these setups posted so far are great. Lots of good story. They need some work to clarify the core driver of the story, but I’m really enjoying them. Good job! 🙂

    • Rich says:

      I have to say you just gave me a HUGE epiphany. I know you were teaching me how to isolate the Concrete Goal and the Major Obstacle, but you just taught me (for the first time) how to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat! Thanks.

  6. Bret says:

    Question 1 Insight: I walk to work whenever it isn’t raining or a weather advisory (so, like twice this year). For Christmas, I got a voice recorder with a speech to text software. I liked using it for my creative Q&A. I could let it flow and turn off the internal editor. I wasn’t writing; I was spitballing, and that helped.
    I don’t know if this is an insight, or a frustration, but I found talking my ideas over with people harder than talking about their ideas. I would think I’d be excited to talk about my ideas, because they excite me, but when I am in the initial idea stages my muse is shy.

    Question 4
    When the ghost of Ellis’s still living brother confronts him, Ellis sets out to rescue his brother from himself, but will Ellis succeed when to do so means challenging a madman and his cult hellbent on meeting their god?

    When a cult takes over the Amethyst House, a changeling sanitarium, Ellis decides to stay and fight. Can he take back the island when faced with mesmerized inmates, cultists, and a dustman?

    When a clockwork-automaton factory threatens a small recyclomancer and his niece, Ellis and his changeling friends are called in for help. Can they protect the recyclomancer and his niece when faced with clockwork war machines, factory thugs, and a paid off constabulary?

    • John Brown says:

      Mine is too. AND I love the walks and talks. I get tons of great ideas when I do that. It’s one of my favorite techniques. I once had a problem with one story that was like a 24 mile problem. Took a couple of days of walks to work that bugger out.

      I’m so happy to have received yet another batch of interesting stories.

      I like your first one the best. However, I’m not clear on what trouble the brother is in. If you tell me, I think it will make that one even more compelling.

      When the ghost of Ellis’s still living brother confronts him, Ellis realizes [the bad thing]. He sets out to rescue his brother. . .

      The second definitely states problem, goal, and obstacle. I like the name “dustman” although I don’t know what it is. I wonder if a line before telling me what changelings are might give this one the power it deserves. Give me some background. And what does the island have to do with the sanitarium? And is there one main villain?

      The last one. What are they threatening? Death, shutting down his business, low-fat diets? I’m not clear what’s at stake. The names are all definitely cool. It’s got a great feel with factory thugs and the clockwork war machines and a “constabulary” (vs “police” force). But there’s nothing there at stake that connects to me.

      Willing to give them another shot?

      • Bret says:

        I struggled with this lesson. Rich was very patient with me and helped me at least get in the ballpark, but some of this didn’t click until I looked at week 4. In any event, I was already working on this some more, and I’ve combined 1 and 2 into a single piece. Let’s see if this works better.
        This is what I wrote when I thought I understood idea 1 better:
        When Ellis discovers that his old changeling patients are being exploited, he vows to rescue them. Will he rescue his charges when confronted with a madman and his cult that are willing to sacrificing anything, including the changelings, in order to see their god?

        Now, I know that doesn’t reference the brother at all. For me, the brother was Ellis’s main exigence, but it wasn’t the focus of the novel. Once I realized that the ghost of Ellis’s still living brother was a plot twist, not the plot, I could focus Ellis on defeating the bad guy.

        After reading your Mech Runners example and your comments, I thought I could add a little more.

        When Ellis Crafte’s older brother Auric returns like the Prodigal Son to take up the helm of the family’s syphon ore business, Ellis is relieved and thinks he’ll be able to settle in to the family’s charity project, the Amethyst House, a sanitarium for changelings, people deformed by horrible mutations. However, Auric has other plans and Ellis is removed from his stewardship and replaced with Dr. Boscage with no explanation. When the ghost of Auric appears to Ellis, Ellis realizes that Auric is under the control of Dr. Boscage and Ellis’s old patients are at risk. Can Ellis make his brother whole and rescue his former charges when confronted with Dr. Boscage and his cult that are willing to sacrificing anything, including the changelings, in order to see their god?

        Does that work a bit better?

    • Greg Baum says:


      I really liked the range of ideas (and the names of things: dustman, recyclomancer, clockwork war machines). My favorite was number 3, it suggested a lot of cool ideas and drew me in.

  7. Mark says:


    Magic / natural setting

    Valampurn – a volcano range that confers gifts to those who breathe trace amounts of the ash and smoke, or to a lesser extent, eat plants grown it its soil. The problem? It’s extremely active and so kills those who live close. Also, the smoke is quickly lethal in any larger amount when mixed with oxygen.

    in history, certain tribes threw young people into it in an attempt to manipulate weather, disease, wars, etc., especially eruptions. They worship the volcano as a god.

    In some circumstances, those thrown in were left in the smoke for 3 days before being dropped in. Though the smoke brings them quickly to a state near death, if they get no oxygen, their bodies are preserved by it as well. The isolated fumes bring on an expanded mental state, and this can lead to the individual transforming his/her very nature.

    On rare occasions, these victims expanded their consciousness to the point where they could heal their own flesh, an ability powered by heat. Thus they gained the ability to survive the lava. Those who figured out how to master these powers before they were killed by their injuries from being dropped into the volcano survived.

    Among those who survive it, this is known as the crucible and they are the “tempered.” It is not generally known that the smoke does this, because those who survive know enough to never return home and vigorously protect the knowledge. They know that if it became generally known what the volcano could do, unscrupulous people the world over would flock there to be thrown in.

    Now, the practice of sacrificing people to the volcano has died away. The tempered, being able to heal themselves when in contact with heat, can only combat aging with the greater heat of Valampurn itself. So they return periodically to the volcano to renew their bodies and to experience the visions and guidance that the fumes induce.

    From time to time the tempered bring apprentices to induct into their ranks, but they don’t know that mixing fumes with oxygen is lethal and, due to the shifting nature of the smoke, survival rates are not high. The process is anything but guaranteed.

    The expanded mental state caused by the fumes can confer other powers, which are specific to individuals and not documented and often not well understood by those receiving them.


    There are creatures, called mercurials, who live in the environs of the volcano range, who have many rumored capabilities, such as the ability to speak into the minds of travelers, to disappear when pursued, or to shroud the land in mist. Mercurials are not one specific creature, rather they are “versions” of many types of creatures found elsewhere, but who, through centuries of exposure to the volcanic fumes, have evolved into something different. example: a mercurial horse might have a shimmering mane, or appear to change size each time it is spotted, or inspire wildness in tame horses. A mercurial cat would be much like the cheshire cat. A mercurial rabbit would be wily enough to eat any crop and avoid snares, or turn the snares on their owners. Illusion and mystery would attend them.


    The volcano is far away from political centers and considered a poor hinterland. In civilized society, the water wheel is huge, and so every town and village is built on a slope near a source of water. Either aqueducts or belts transfer energy into homes, factories, and shops. This water must then be passed on without pollution or dilution of any kind. There are harsh religious proscriptions against anyone tainting or stealing water.

    natural aspects

    See the volcano section above under magic. Countries are generally united along major river systems, each river with its own deity. people are seen as servants of water. As mentioned in technology, dwellings (cities, towns) are generally built on slopes, and the water cascades down and serves everyone. transportation is powered by water: a rickshaw or wagon driver hitches his wagon to a belt to be pulled up the steepest part of the city, which has ramps built for the purpose. Like a ski lift, it carries everyone to the top and then they can descend however they like.

    Villages with no system of water wheels and belts are considered poor, and even profane. I need to come up with a word for them, a pejorative, like “unwatered” but nastier.

    War has very carefully observed bounds. No army will profane another’s water source, and so, when territory changes hands, it is because battles have been fought away from the rivers.

    To be “upstream” is to be of higher social status (indeed, this word is used metaphorically to mean just that). Even though no one profanes the water on pain of death, it is still considered less desirable to be downstream and get the water everyone else has used. And so, though it is also forbidden to withhold water, this is the veiled threat that allows many nobles to hang on to their hereditary power. It is water, and not land, that confers prestige and power, especially water that has yet to flow downward. Potential energy of water is valued (i.e. water in a high place is worth more than water in a low place). Kings and queens generally live just below the confluence of major rivers, where the river has gained all of the water it will have, but before it flows very far from that spot. If there is no slope along its course, the water will be diverted to someplace that suits the people who need it.

    There are “terrorists” who do not shrink from poisoning wells and streams. They are hunted and hated.

  8. Mark says:




    he’s disabled from a young age by an accident (long before the beginning of the story) and has a malformed ankle. As an adolescent (at the beginning of the story), he is trapped behind a lava flow when he can’t move fast enough to escape. His friends are sure he’s dead, but during this time, he actually passes through the crucible, the first one to do so in centuries. (see magic under setting)

    Thereafter, he must hide his new-found ability to heal himself. In fact, after a couple of near-discoveries, he takes to actually injuring himself, then healing himself only as far as he was before the crucible. He reproduces his handicap in order to avoid surprising his village. Though he breathed pure smoke, the smoke’s potency was reduced because it wasn’t directly over the volcano. Therefore Chal didn’t receive the full expanded consciousness of a “tempered,” and doesn’t know he should leave his village. He only knows how to heal himself. At times, he has visions of more, but they’re shrouded and uncertain.

    He has always been left out and left behind, so he is insecure and fearful. He is also intelligent and inquisitive.


    Love interest

    Ephanie has always been kind to Chal, even though she is attracted to Romar, another boy in their village. Because of her kindness, Romar is at times jealous of Chal and singles him out for mockery or exclusion. Though she hasn’t yet found the words or realized the feelings, she respects Chal for his introspection and knowledge, and her respect for Romar is based more on fear of rejecting him than actual affection.

    Ephanie is fascinated by things than originate outside their small village, and longs to experience the “watered” world, instead of their dry civilization. They must live near the volcano and away from large rivers in order to raise the towering kafea trees that only grow to their full height in rich volcanic soil. Though she loves her family and especially respects her strict father, she has always felt a wanderlust.



    Romar has always been athletic, and he is valued in the village for how much he works during the harvest. He is quickest to climb trees and strong enough to carry a full load of kafea beans on his back. He assumes one day he’ll marry Ephanie, and is constantly showing off whenever she’s around. He cares a great deal about the opinion others have of him in the village, and believes one day he’ll lead the Circle.



    Kalida has, for many years, made herself available as few of the tempered have, to the public. She is the Oracle of Tyrms, the Prophetess of the Abyss. Her secret, however, is that her power, her vision, comes not from the Abyss of Tyrms, but from the “crucible,” a hidden chamber deep in the cauldron of the faraway Valampurn. Her wisdom is more than enough for most human problems, but when she learns of Chal, a young man with a strange fiery scar and even stranger tale, she knows the days of her long hermitage have ended. She is faced with a question she’s long avoided–is keeping her secret worth allowing another soul to suffer?

  9. Mark says:

    crucible – problem

    Chal, a crippled child in a mountain town, is trapped when the sleeping volcano comes back to life, and lava and ash separate him from his friends. Instead of being killed, the fumes transport Chal’s consciousness to another plane, where he learns to redirect the heat of the lava to “purify” his wounded ankle.

    Chal becomes “addicted” to healing his leg and wandering off, doing things he’s never been able to do, like chasing mercurials, climbing kafea trees, or even, on one occasion, journeying down out of the volcanic lands to see the headwaters of the Olmrest – the closest mighty river. Each time, upon returning home, he builds a large fire, breaks his ankle, then, using the heat of the fire, heals it to the point where it more or less resembles the injury he’s had his whole life. Romar notices Chal’s absences, mostly because Ephanie is worried about him, and thinks he sees Chal running from a distance at one point, but dismisses this as a mercurial having fun with him.

    Finally, however, Chal’s curiosity is too much for prudence. He has to go all the way down to swim in the Olmrest, and is unable to return by nightfall. The villagers mount a search for him, and he has just finished re-injuring and healing himself when he comes across Ephanie, out farther than the others, who, distracted by the site of his foot in a fire, loses her footing and slides down a slope into the branch of a tree, where she is impaled through the chest.

    Faced with the prospect of watching her die because of his stupidity, Chal tries to heal her, but he’s never been able to use his gift to heal another–it simply doesn’t work that way. Finally, in a panic, he pulls her from the branch, wills his gift into her, and thrusts her into the fire.

    Ephanie, in a stupor, receives both Chal’s gift and his (less than fully expanded) awareness, and heals herself in the fire without realizing what she is doing. However, at that moment, Romar, drawn by the smoke of the fire, walks into view and sees what he thinks is Chal, trying to burn Ephanie to death.

    Romar pulls her free, saving her from what he thinks is a fiery death, and Ephanie is too groggy to know otherwise. He beats the crap out of Chal and carries Ephanie off, telling Chal he’ll be back with help.

    To Romar’s mind, Chal’s repeated absences are now explained. He’s been trying to resurrect the ancient volcano worship, in which a young woman (normally) was sacrificed in exchange for some blessing. What blessing could Chal be seeking? Obviously, the restoration of his leg. Now Romar believes he can explain the things he’s seen. Chal has been trafficking with forbidden powers, and reached the point where he needed a sacrifice to continue, and Romar arrived just shy of too late to stop him.

    Chal, realizing how all of this will look, knows he needs to flee. He tries to heal himself, but now fully grasps that his gift is gone, and only manages to burn his already crippled leg in the fire. Instead, he drags himself to the nearest kafea tree, and using the muscles he’s only recently developed, manages to drag himself up into it using only one foot, and hides himself. When the villagers return looking for him, he holds perfectly still and bites his tongue on the pain of his burn. He is almost betrayed by the mercurial flying squirrels, who are normally almost impossible to spot, but who keep leaping to and from his branch, attracting much attention from the villagers below.

    They use his fire as a base while they search for him, so Chal is forced to spend two days up in the tree. He hears the villagers cursing his name and what he tried to do to Ephanie. By that time, his leg has become infected, and Chal is feverish and hallucinating. He dreams that the squirrels are feeding him kafea beans, which are toxic when eaten raw. He tries to spit them out but they force them down his throat.

    When Chal finally awakes, his infection is gone, and on his burn are the chewed remains of hundreds of kafea beans made into a poultice. Whether by accident or design, the acid of the beans has turned his skin into a purple scar or tattoo in the shape of a flame up to and above the knee.

    Having lost his power and having been thoroughly disgraced, Chal limps back downhill toward the Olmrest, to try to find a new life for himself, and to discover, if he can, what it was that healed him, and expanded his mind, and whether he can somehow regain it.

    Ephanie, meanwhile, is slowly piecing together her memories of the event. She knows something is wrong with Romar’s story. Though she can tell he is sincere, she can also remember Chal, somehow inside her mind, begging her to live. That memory, though shrouded in haze, feels more potent to her than any waking recollection. She begins to experience flashes of insight, and feels drawn to heat as if it were not a danger, but a friend. She discovers her ability to heal herself, little by little. She dare not share it with anyone, and she still can’t say what happened, but she knows her secret is the only way to clear Chal’s name.

    Romar, unable to find Chal, is now firmly pissed, and, feeling Ephanie’s lack of condemnation for the man who tried to sacrifice her, thinks Chal has somehow brought her under a spell. He needs to track Chal down and make him return and release her, to complete the rescue he started when he pulled Ephanie from the fire.

  10. Mark says:

    crucible – story setups

    1) When Chal, a disgraced cripple, comes to Olms to find some clue to a miraculous healing power he had and lost, the guardians of that power–the tempered–become aware of him. Some are sympathetic, some only want to silence him, but can Chal earn his place among them when Romar, Chal’s rival from home, arrives in Olms bearing tales of Chal’s forbidden blasphemy?

    2) For many years, Chal, a crippled and disfigured man, has wandered the world in search of some clue to a power which could have healed him, but which he gave away to save another. He is pursued relentlessly by Romar, a black-clad bounty-hunter with a grudge. Finally, Chal discovers Kalida, a prophetess and oracle who points him back to the very volcano where he grew up, and from where he fled in disgrace. Will Chal be able to avoid Romar, placate those in his home town who want him dead, survive the efforts of the wise and powerful “tempered” to silence him, and, finally, resist the implacable fury of Valampurn, the undying volcano, long enough to puzzle out the secrets of the crucible, and take his place among the tempered?

    3) Chal long ago made peace with the fact that he gave up the power to heal his crippled leg in order to save his wife’s life. She still doesn’t know exactly how it all worked, but she knows she’s impervious to heat and never stays hurt for long. However, when Romar, Chal’s old rival, finds him and threatens Chal’s position in the ruling council of Olms, Chal must return to the ancient volcano of Valampurn in search of proof of what he did–proof that the crucible is real. It is proof the tempered will do anything in their power to keep hidden.

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