|First in a series of articles intended to make life easier for new writers who want to contribute to the Metamor Keep setting. See also: Characters in Metamor Keep.|
Writing in a Shared Universe
Specifically: Metamor Keep
by Christian O'Kane
With serious help from Deranged Kitsune
©2004 Christian O'Kane -- all rights reserved
"I want to write a Metamor Keep story, but it's just too hard." As the controller of the Metamor Keep universe I can't tell you how many times I've had an email or a conversation that started with those words. I don't blame anyone for saying that, after all, the MK archive has over 250 stories and is still growing! Writing in the Metamor Keep universe isn't easy but it's hardly as complex as it first seems and it can be very rewarding.
Metamor Keep is an example of what's known as a 'shared universe'. What is a shared universe? Simply put, it's a setting created for a series of stories. Shared universes are an integral part of the TSA-Talk mailing list and many branches of fandom. A quick scan of the Internet can turn up thousands of stories based on Star Trek, Star Wars, AD&D and any of a dozen different television shows. On the TSA-Talk mailing list there are several dozen shared universes. Besides Metamor Keep (MK) we have The Blind Pig (TBP), No More Fakes (NMF), Here and There (H&T), Blood and Fur (B&F), List Transformed (LTF), Xanadu, and Winds of Change (WoC), to name just a few.
Metamor Keep is a fantasy setting, roughly equal to Europe in the late Middle Ages at the start of the Renaissance. The powerful castle known as Metamor Keep is struck by a trio of potent curses that changes all within it. Anyone who remains in Metamor's territory for more than two weeks is changed into either a child, a member of the opposite sex or an anthropomorphic animal. The setting was created by the long time TSA-Talk mailing list writer Copernicus. Due to a busy life, he handed control over to me a few years ago and I've been running it ever since, with considerable help from many others.
Writing in a shared universe is not for everyone. To do so means following the guidelines and rules that are set for it. You will find that some ideas you want to do are not allowed because they conflict with someone else's or are outright banned. In a shared universe you have to do the obvious -- share. It means cooperating and compromising at times with the other writers.
Some people prefer to write alone, keeping their settings all to themselves. This way they don't have to worry about what other writers want to do. They are free to write whatever they want and pursue their ideas to their heart's content. All of which is fine for a setting which only one author writes in, but to keep a shared universe going properly means cooperating and working within the set guidelines. Some people find these restrictions too confining, while others draw inspiration from them.
I myself enjoy the fellowship and outright fun of working with all the others in Metamor Keep. I've made many good friends through MK; Charles Matthias, Deranged Kitsune and Ryx are just a few of them ,and the list seems to grow each day. Deranged Kitsune described it so: "Authors are open and supporting with each other to an extraordinary degree. I don't think that there's anyone here who will deny at least hearing out another author, or even a new author, who wishes to suggest some changes to aspects of MK under their control." Charles Matthias put it best of all, "The friends I've made because of MK I'll have for the rest of my life."
One great aspect of Metamor Keep and all shared universes is how we all seem to inspire each other. I've found that far from fighting and conflicting, we often help and encourage each other! Events and ideas of one writer can inspire another or several others! Wolf 0013 gave me the idea that led to me to creating Madog. Deranged Kitsune came up with the story line of Remembrance & Revenge, Charles Matthias and I have been using each others characters for a long time and have each encouraged the other countless times. And let's not forget that Ryx started the entire Winter Assault mega-story with a simple "I have an idea for a story." Some simple story! Winter Assault eventually grew to over 600 pages and included 15 authors!
"The absolute best part about that, though, is that unlike most other universes, if another author likes what you've done in your work, you'll most often see it reflected in theirs," says Deranged Kitsune. "There are multiple instances of one story spawning a few more. Authors here aren't just rewarded with a 'good story' email, but with others saying "That was so cool, I had to make some use of it myself." Character interaction in other authors stories is really a staple of MK, and it's quite a miracle that we all get along as well as we do. Stories in MK don't just feed responses, they feed other stories. That is ultimately what makes this a great universe." While not every story will spawn a response like this, the stronger that one author makes their own story arc, the more likely it will be that others will pick up on it.
Another reason I love MK is the freedom to write and actually make a difference. Each authors stories are part of the whole universe and affect all the others in a solid and noticeable manner. And a person isn't closely restricted and tightly bound as some other universes are. A person can mold and shape a portion of the universe in a way they can be proud of. A line Mystic wrote says it best, "Everyone gets to play. Even many years later when a new person comes along and wants to carve out his/her own little niche in the universe, s/he is welcomed with open arms. I'm a minor contributor to the universe who puts out maybe 2 stories a year, and yet everyone is perfectly willing to respect what I've written as part of the universe." Of course a person isn't totally free. Writing in a shared universe does mean a willingness to cooperate with the other writers. The same goes for Metamor Keep. But unlike some universes where the owner controls it down to the smallest detail, stifling new writers, Metamor Keep is only loosely run and any persons ideas are equally considered. Basically as long as a new writer's idea doesn't conflict with someone else's they are free to use it.
Of all the reasons I've heard for writing in MK the best is from my good friend Mystic, "MK is simply good fiction." Can't put it much better than that... but where Metamor Keep is concerned, I might be a little prejudiced.
That brings us back to the question I stated at the beginning of this article -- how to write in that Shared universe. There is no doubt that writing a story set in any shared universe can be difficult, and a Metamor Keep story can seem more daunting than most. After all, the Archive has over 200 stories, a score of authors and a long, detailed timeline. The FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) list for Metamor Keep is pages long. That alone can scare off some people. So where to begin if all this confuses you?
The first place is the most obvious: Ask someone! All the writers of MK are more than happy to speak with a new writer and answer questions. As the controller of MK I am one person you can ask. I am always free to answer questions and explain things. Also Charles Matthias, Raven Blackmane and any other MK writer are available to speak with. I am almost always on ICQ, IRC and AIM nightly so feel free to drop by and chat. If not simply e-mail one of us. We are always willing to listen to your ideas and help you bring them to a finished story.
If you do have an idea for a story, another good first step is the MK website. In addition to all the stories the site has a large FAQ that has a huge amount of information. This includes not only an extensive character list, but also maps, pictures, and information on the MK world. Want to know what the valley looks like? It's there. Want to know what coinage is used? That's in there too. A quick perusal of the guidelines contained in the FAQ can answer a lot of questions and hopefully inspire as well.
The sheer size of the archive and the number of characters daunts people. In Metamor Keep time definitely moves forward with each story. We are managing 1 season in MK per year in real life. This gives a real problem for new writers in that they need to keep up with current events in MK. Who is doing what and when? For instance, at this moment Charles Matthias' character has been banned from the Keep and is living in Glen Avery. If you want to do a story with him in it, you have to take that fact into consideration.
Fortunately, you don't have to ALL the stories in the archive if you want to write a new tale of MK. If you're only up to story 98 in the archive and have a really good idea for a story, you don't need to read the other 100+ stories before you can start writing. However you still need to know what all the characters are doing. Or do you?
Sure, if you are going to use a specific character you need to know where that character is and what has happened to them. But that's only a problem with major characters, the ones who have appeared in lots of previous stories and therefore have a lot of pre-defined history. If you don't know what a long established character is doing, don't use them! Remember -- the population of the Keep and its surrounding territory is 15,000, after all, and the Keep is the size of a city. That's plenty of room for all sorts of characters and stories that never meet or clash. With that many people living at the Keep your characters can move about without ever coming into close contact with other people's.
Here is some advice on creating a character, and writing a story, for MK. Most of this advice has been learned the hard way by all the MK writers. Myself included.
The first and most useful: Keep things simple. The best characters and stories I've seen were simple and not all powerful. A bad habit we MK writers got into was what one of us called The Superman Syndrome. This is when you create a character that is very powerful with all sorts of abilities & skills (usually magical) and possessing potent magic weapons. And usually this kind of character has some deep, dark, world-shattering secret in their hidden past. I have to admit even I have been guilty of this. After someone brought that to light it changed my thinking about characters. I actually created George the Patrol Master as a result. He is simple, far from all-powerful and has no deep dark secrets but I love using him.
Don't misunderstand me; having a character with lots of powers allows them to do many things but sometimes those powers can dominate a character and their stories if you aren't careful. My own character Misha has Whisper, a very powerful axe. It was a spur-of-the-moment addition to my first MK story. Since then the axe has almost become a character itself but sometimes it causes problems. If I have a scene where Misha has to loose a fight, I need to neutralize the axe. In Snips and Snails I had to find a way for Misha to lose an important fight against Madog. With the axe Misha would have stood a good chance of defeating Madog and I didn't want that. So I had to keep the axe out of his hands. Finally I hit on the idea of Madog being in corridors that were too narrow for the axe to be properly used.
But if properly handled such things can become valuable additions to a character. For a character if you want to make them powerful, feel free - just don't make them all powerful. Misha is a superb scout and very skilled in the use of an axe, and yet he wasn't the most skilled axe wielder. He was defeated and almost killed by 2 axe men in one story I wrote. Another thing to consider is giving your character weaknesses and disadvantages, like a fear of heights or enclosed places. For instance, you could make them a very powerful mage who possesses no combat skills what so ever. The Metamor Keep character Rickkter is very powerful, but his paranoia and secretive nature has cost him a lot, in addition to generating more story ideas.
Now all the above are just general guidelines that relate to character creation. As I said earlier, Metamor contains a good deal of rules on what is allowed and what is not, and how certain things work in its world. The following are hard and fast rules of things in MK. Most of the things here will be expanded on as these articles progress.
First: The curse itself cannot be avoided. No amount of magic can stop the curse from affecting a person. Powerful magic can twist it to a certain degree but never stop it.
Second: No gunpowder. Although the Metamor universe is very close to creating gunpowder, there is none in use in MK. There are no rifles, cannons or hand grenades in MK; however, there are magical weapons that are somewhat equivalent. For example, Misha used to have a magic version of a hand grenade. It was wholly magic-based and used no gunpowder.
Third: No Anachronisms. This being a fantasy universe, things such as stereos and walkmans are pretty much out of the question. Similar accomplishments through magic are technically possible but not really appropriate. Metamor Keep is supposed to be a fairly technologically advanced country, however, so any earthly invention that does not rely on electronics or fossil fuels is possible. Note that this also includes anything (names, items, etc) specific to the Real world. For instance, Charles Matthias is a Brown rat, not a Norway rat. Keepers speak the Common tongue, not English or French. We have been gradually hashing out more specifics of the languages and their names. The only real exceptions to this are the names of months and days (Monday, Tuesday, etc; January, February, etc) and measurements (inches, feet, etc). Those are the same as we use here.
Fourth: No crossovers from other universes. Sorry, but this rule was set long before I joined. For instance, you can write a story where your TBP character visits MK, but it will not be canon -- i.e., it won't be an 'official' MK story -- and most likely won't find its way into the MK archive.
Fifth: No one can use another person's character without that person's permission. Also, the owning writer has the right to say no or require changes to how their character is used in a story. It is acceptable to simply mention a character, or give them a brief appearance, akin to a walk-on role on TV. But if you are unsure -- ask the owning writer. Getting permission isn't specific to MK; rather, it's a rule for all shared universes. It's also common courtesy. Note: Certain characters are off-limits. They are listed as such in the Character List in the archives. Please respect this and do not use those characters.
Sixth: No one can beat the character Copernicus at pool. Don't even ask me to explain this one. Well, maybe if you ask really nice I might.
Seventh: The curse itself works by specific rules which must be respected and followed. The area of effect for the curse is not just the castle but everything in Metamor Valley within 1 days' ride of the Keep itself, a total radius of about 12 miles. To be affected by the curse, a person must remain under its influence no less than 10 days. This is the bare minimum for the curse to take hold. The longer they stay beyond the 10 day mark, the higher their chance of being transformed. By day 14, everyone has been affected. Once a victim starts to transform, the time it will take them to finish changing can range from mere minutes to almost a month. Remember, writing an intro story about how your character deals with the change can be a lot more interesting than what they do afterwards! Some of the best introduction stories in MK have taken this approach.
Fortunately, exposure to the curse is not cumulative. For example, a person could spend 7 days in the valley, then leave for a single day. Leaving the area 'resets the clock'; if they came back later to spend another 7 days in the valley, they wouldn't get the curse. But if they stayed 14 days straight, then the curse would effect them.
Eight: Last but not least. I am the universe controller and as such I am in control of what happens in Metamor Keep. When I say "no", that ends it. Other people in MK can offer advice and suggestions, and I will listen to them, but my word is law. But it isn't as harsh as it sounds. I will listen to a good argument for or against something, and I do try to be fair and work out compromises when conflicts arise. In the time I've been in control, I've really only had to lay down the law two or three times. I've only flat-out refused 1 story.
One final thing. Many years ago Copernicus explained to me why he created Metamor Keep and the guiding light behind it. Metamor Keep is for new authors. It's for all those people out there who want to write and aren't sure how or feel intimidated by the other shared universes. The rules and guidelines, while they might seem complex at first glance, are fairly easy. Some of these rules are common courtesy, and others control the setting. All will quickly become second nature to a writer. I tend to run a loose ship, and a writer is given a huge amount of leeway compared to other story universes. Basically, if you want to do it, I almost always say yes. If I do say no, I'll offer advise on how to change it so I can say yes. I got my start in writing with a Metamor Keep story and people already writing MK helped me along. That is something I've never forgotten, and every day I try to carry on that tradition in Metamor Keep. Nothing delights me more than seeing a new writer send their first MK story to the mailing lists.
Well, those are the basics! I hope I haven't confused you too much. I hope to do more articles about Metamor Keep, each one going into more depth about a specific aspect of the shared universe like characters, geography, magic, and of course the curse itself.
I am including a few of the more important email, IRC and ICQ addresses below:
Christian O'Kane (me!) -- ICQ: 28143887
Raven Blackmane -- ICQ: 5859990
We have our own IRC channel: MKGuild, IRC server irc.menagerie.tf, Port 6667, Description TFNet. Channel #MKGuild.
In addition, there is an MK Mailing List (visit this website to join) and, of course, the Metamor Keep Archives.