Tag Archives: Fire-Rider

PRESENTING… Another Free Read! Fire-Rider!

Well! Having discovered that the “Free Reads” hobby here at Plain & Simple Press apparently generates sales over at Amazon, I decided to add the current Fire-Rider tome to the serial publications.

As I mentioned yesterday, getting the thing online will be a large project. It has 79 chapters, f’rhevvinsake. About 87 berzillion images are scattered hither and yon, on WordPress, on Facebook,, on Pinterest, and on my hard drive…finding a specific one is a challenge.

Rather than dribble these things out at the rate of one squib a week over a year and a half (will I even live that much longer??), I’ve decided to publish a section a week. Fire-Rider has 18 sections (published at Amazon as short “books”), so if I keep to the schedule (good luck with that!), the whole thing should be online in 18 weeks.

That assumes I get my act that much together and keep it together.

The first four chapters will go online tomorrow, along with a foreword and a parody scholarly article on the life and times of Kaybrel and his cohort (I think it’s pretty deadpan funny…but maybe you have to read and write scholarly papers to realize what it’s poking fun at). Wednesdays and Thursdays are rumored to be the best days to publish blog posts — supposedly readers are bored with their jobs along about then and so tune in to tune out. So I will try to post weekly on Wednesday mornings.

This little project has absorbed the entire day. But if, as I’ve done with the other serialized books, I can get the entire thing scheduled for publication in upcoming days, it will be pretty self-sufficient. Then the only real challenge is to remember to plug each new appearance on Facebook and Twitter…a chore that has been slipping my mind of late.

Really…computer stuff flummoxes me! 😀

At any rate, a start is made. Watch this space: links to the first four chapters, the front matter, and the back matter will go up tomorrow morning. You can find a link to the Fire-Rider saga at the top of any page or post at Plain & Simple Press. Whenever the chapters go live, I’ll insert links in the table of contents in the Fire-Rider page.

C’mon by…it’s SO much better than working.

Who Was Hapa Cottrite?

“You read, Hapa Cottrite? Marks on stone? Or wood?” When Lhored spoke the name, it came out Ca’rite.

“I can, Mister Kubna,” said Cottrite. “Here the marks are on paper, too.”

“Then you can read the holy writings?”

“Sometimes. It depends how old they are. The oldest writings, the words are hard to make out, and you can’t know for sure what they mean. But I can understand some holy words.”

Lhored considered this silently. “In Okan, it’s not lawful to read the holy words,” he said. “Not unless you’re called. And few are called.”

“We have the same law here,” Babra Puehkenz replied. “Hapa’s mother was a reader. That’s how he came to be chosen.”

“I see,” said Lhored. At once intrigued and uncomfortable, he eyed the man. The only reader in Okan lived in Glathe cowndee, and she was very old. She didn’t read any more, certainly not holy writings, because her eyes would no longer let her see the marks. If she hadn’t died over the summer, she soon would.

Unlike her, though, this man was no religious votary. If he were, he would never admit to not understanding any part of the writings. And evidently he spent his time on quite a lot more than contemplating the other world. It occurred to Lhored, in passing, that something vaguely dangerous lurked in this circumstance. Even if it were allowed, fewer Hengliss than Espanyos had time for reading—they were too busy trying to stay alive. And if they did have time for it, they would have nothing to read. Still, wouldn’t it be good to have someone to take the old woman’s place! His presence would bring prestige to the House of Cham Fos. Mitchel would be pleased. More to the point, so would his first wife, the politically powerful Kubnath of Huam Prinz.

We know of Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek’s life and times only because a wandering scholar named Hapa Cottrite fell in with the Hengliss war bands and wrote a journal describing their exploits. His writings, along with a collection of antique documents, were found in a cave in Northern Vada and eventually were passed along to scholars who studied, transcribed, and translated them.

The Fire-Rider stories interpret key parts of the Cottrite Codex, covering the conflicts between Hengliss and Espanyo war bands that occurred during the middle period of the Great Lacuna. Our version was interpreted by Estabanya Marcanda do Tilár i Robintál do Nomanto Berdo, master story teller of the Methgoan Academy of Written and Oral Performance. She based her retelling of the story on the definitive translation by Fontano do Caz Eviatád, sponsored by the Western Regional Council of Research Sciences and the Institute for Theory of Intuitional Dissemination (TID) Studies.

During the Great Lacuna, literacy almost went extinct. Writing was thought to be sinful and a cause of humanity’s many troubles. Consequently, reading and writing were crimes, violations of religious and civil law in most parts of Methgoa. This was particularly true in the regions west of the Sehrra Muns, where neither Espanyo nor Hengliss peoples would tolerate it.

The only exceptions were religious devotees, mostly women, who functioned as seers and interpreters of omens. Cottrite’s mother was one of these, and apparently it was she who taught him to read and write. Although he was evidently not a votary (we find mention of his wife, who served as a magistrate at Lek Doe), he seems to have been given dispensation by virtue of the mother’s status. He was regarded as an officially sanctioned “reader,” although he conspicuously avoided service to the faith.

Indeed, it appears that Cottrite was something of a troublemaker. This is indicated by the eagerness shown by Babra Puehkenz, Lek Doe’s eminent seeyo, to pack him off with the Okan hordes. Her offer of his services to Brez Lhored as a “gift” to help expiate the murder of an Okan kubna clearly had a self-serving motive. Sending Cottrite to Okan as a “teacher” effectively exiled him to the edge of the ice sheet.

This, That, & Publishing

Busy day coming up, but wanted to post a couple of updates:

The plan to publish a hard-copy version of the first Fire-Rider collection (books I-VI) developed into a more complicated project than expected. To make a long and exceptionally frustrating story short, the Wyrd template I used to lay out the pages corrupted — or else it’s PDF, which is unknown. It took quite a while to identify the problem, and once the problem was discovered, the solution required rebuilding a 371-page document from scratch.

Once that was done, though, the PDF and the cover loaded fine, I think. LOL! We’ll find out soon enough: when the page proofs get here, we can actually put our hot little hands on them. That should allow us to see any problems and fix.

The final cover came out reasonably well, I think.

FR Hard Copy 1 Take 3 LoRes. jpg

I cut the back cover blurb considerably; added a short pull-out (the italic passage). Instead of arranging the titles of books 1 thru 6 in a vertical list on the front cover, I set them horizontally, separated by bullets. They seem less distracting that way, yet they’re readable.

This book will not be sold on Amazon (at least, I have no plans to do so at this time). I’m having it printed to produce something to take to a shindig next month, where we’ll be invited to present our works.

However, if you would like a copy, I’d be happy to sell it from this site. Just leave a query as a comment to this post. It was expensive to produce — the page proofs, which are printed and bound like a final copy — came to over $11. So I’m afraid that retail price is going to have to be a little more than $11.99. However, JUST FOR YOU, and just for a limited period, I’ll offer it at that price through this website.

In the Racy Books for Racy Readers department, we’ll also have a hard-copy collection of the Family stories:

FAMILY pkg cover LoRes

This one is at the printer, too, for production of a proof. LOL! The book actually contains eight stories…that will have to be corrected on the back cover. And there, my children, is why we have page proofs! As you can see, I haven’t even placed a bar code on it, so little do I have any intention of peddling it on Amazon. Or in hard copy at all.

The final version of this one, which also will go to the December chivaree with me, probably will have the author’s byline centered above the title, with the words Eight and Stories shifted rightward accordingly. And I think I’ll put the imprint’s name — Camptown Races Press — in small type at the lower margin of the back cover, since I’m less than 100% thrilled with the logo I came up with.

At any rate, soon the book will exist. It’ll be a COLLECTOR’S ITEM, by golly! What a Christmas present!

If you’d like a copy of it, let me know — again, contact me through the comments section to this post. Printing cost for this was a little more sane. I think I can afford to sell it for about $10, providing about $2 profit.

So, come one, come all! The first Fire-Rider collection, $11.99 (a give-away!) and the first Racy Books collection, $10.

What and Where Is Lek Doe???

LOL! When I posted Book 13, Lek Doe, on Amazon, that august purveyor’s system first assumed I must have misspelled the title. “What?” it marveled. “You mean Led Doe?”

How about “Lead Doe“?

Assured that the spelling was intended, it then decided I was writing in Japanese. It asked if I wouldn’t please like a machine-generated translation of the title!

Well, of course, who on this side of the Great Lacuna ever heard of Lek Doe, eh?

Lek Doe is a trading center high in the Sehrra Muns. It’s situated next to a deep, clear, pristine lake that fills the crater of an ancient volcano. And it sits atop the crumbled ruins of the all-but-forgotten Mercan city once called “Lake Tahoe.”

An affluent town straddling trade routes between north and south, Okan and Socalia, Lek Doe enforces a strict neutrality that prohibits hostilities among the many wanderers, traders, merchants, and soldiers who pass through its precincts. Arms must be set aside, harsh words are frowned upon, and fights are likely to land all participants in the hoosegow.

Its neutrality is one of the reasons the Okan and A′oan bands are force-marching their men through the mountains toward the town, trying to reach it as fast as they can. If they are being pursued (as some of the kubnas suspect is the case), the Espanyo enemy will have to stand down once the Hengliss are inside the town.

Lek Doe also embodies the highest point of culture in the world of the Great Lacuna. Locals are wealthy and as civilized as humans get during the deep ice age that has afflicted the globe. Kay and Tavi explore a town laid out like a huge medieval bazaar, filled with interesting and entertaining sights, always tempting with luxury goods and tasty foods cooked at roadside.

Marching, the men contemplate the glories that await them:

Down on the lower end of Pine Ridge Road, not too far from the lakeshore, stood a wooden shed that was one of Mitch’s favorite watering holes. The proprietor brewed six different kinds of custom potations, none of which was to be missed. Perhaps, he thought, he’d go there first, before he visited Liana’s [Mitch’s preferred house of ill repute], so as to be adequately lubricated. Later, maybe the horses. Or the dogs. These people would race anything. Once, in the downtown marketplace, Mitch had seen some guy taking bets on racing fleas. They seemed to have arenas for everything, too. Out on the Espanyo side, they had a bull arena, where slender, graceful, crazy young men confronted long-horned bulls, big angry brutes crazier than their challengers, and where horsemen from deep in Socalia—some even from Mezgo, they claimed—raced wild horses and bulls, and if you were as demented as they were, they’d let you lay down your money and ride against them. Charro, they called them.

Devey liked to go to the fights. At Doe, you could wager on bare-knuckle and gloved, wrestling and kicking, cocks and bears. He promised Porfi they would see a cockfight, and Porfi bragged to that effect in front of his friends. Devey also had his favorite cathouse, and he had about decided Porfi had reached an age when he could be introduced to ladies. He would make up his mind about that once he got to Doe.

Lhored considered cathouses far beneath his dignity. Instead, handsomely placed women came to him, when he so desired. For the prominent or the very wealthy, Lek Doe offered a type of woman who was less a prostitute than an entertainer. Some of these became mistresses or wives of favored clients. Others maintained independence, accrued considerable wealth, and retired to become proprietors of various small businesses, or simply to live out their lives in comfort. One, in particular, Lhored hoped would still be there to visit him.

Hardly a man in the company didn’t have similar thoughts, and more. On an earlier visit, Arden had learned he could rent a tiny sailing boat from the locals and let the breeze carry him over the water, the way he might ride a wind-driven ice skiff across a frozen Okan pond. He looked forward to trying that again.

Don’O had caught the finest fish he’d ever eaten in the cold, deep waters of Lek Doe. Big, too, it was, and a fighter. He intended to hook another one someday—maybe tomorrow would be the day. He knew, though, that he’d spend a fair amount of his time riding herd on Moor Lek’s young pups, trying to keep them from forking over every tahm they’d brought with them plus the clothes off their backs to the various hustlers and grifters who inhabited the streets.

He calculated: he’d spring at least two from the hoosegow. A dozen or more would have to be nursed through the consequences of having no clue how to handle their liquor. The whole idiot crew would think the cat-lady was real and the two-headed calf (or whatever marvel the sideshows that dotted the thoroughfares had to offer this summer) was worth paying to see. Three would pass out somewhere and come stumbling along, bedazed, hours after the troops had hit the road. Several would show up at the barracks-tent with hookers on their arms, and at least one fool would announce he was in love. His buddies would never manage to resist the pranks this invited. Silently, Don’O laughed at the Lek Doe antics he had gone through in the past. Had he ever been as dumb as these young kids?

And if some rustic from north or south would like to buy a lead doe, no doubt he can find one there.

The Retreat into the Mountains

The war bands climb upward into the mountains, putting as much distance between themselves and the enemy as they can manage. Drizzling rain threatens to turn to ice and snow. Kaybrel and his sidekick Fallon believe they should put Kay’s gravely injured war horse out of his misery…

§ § §

20 demon


While Kay was tending to Nando, Fallon washed the soot and ash off Demon’s legs. What he found didn’t please him. The animal’s hide was blistered or burned off from his hooves to his flanks. It was astonishing, he thought, that Kay made it through the flames the first time; the second and third came no short of a miracle.

“This horse is in a bad way,” he said when Kay had a moment. “You probably should put him down.”

Kay looked at the wounds himself. “I hate to do that,” he said, after a moment of silence.

“I know,” Fallon replied, and he did. Realizing his friend’s distress, he said, “Would you like me to take care of it? We can have one of the riflemen….”

“Don’t kill Demon!” Tavi interjected. “How can you do that?”

Kay looked at the boy with some surprise. Was he really asking how two men who had, not long ago, taken part in exterminating the people of Roksan could consider killing a horse? To his greater surprise, he saw that Fallon seemed to take this as worth responding to.

“He’ll die anyway, Tavi—most likely,” Fal said. “It’s no kindness to make him go on now.”

“Would you like to get killed after you saved your friends’ lives?” Tavio returned. “Would you want to die if you had a few burns on your arms and legs?”

“I don’t know, chacho. I’m not a horse,” said Fallon.

“Don’t do that,” Tavi repeated.

“We need to get going,” Kay reminded Fal. “Let’s make up our minds. Do you think he can keep up with us?”

“I doubt it.”

“Then we need to put him down.”

“Yeah,” Fal agreed. “Look, boy. Demon will starve or freeze if we leave him behind. He’ll be hurting too much to forage for himself. Do you want him to die like that? Better to go quickly than to suffer for days.”

“But what if he can keep up with us?”

“That’s about enough,” said Kaybrel, whose patience with this exchange had run dry. “I don’t want to hear any more about it from you, Tavio. Get my saddle off the animal and let’s put it on Rik’s horse, if it’ll fit. I’d rather use my own tack than someone else’s. When you’re done, you can carry Rik’s gear over to the brez’s wagon and give it back while I tend to business.”

“Just give him a chance,” Tavi persisted. “If he falls behind, then you can do it.”

Learn Demon’s Fate!


Buy Book IX Now!

Kay Tells about the Battle of Loma Alda

Book VII is online at Amazon! The story relates the action and the aftermath the disastrous Battle of Loma Alda, in which the fierce Okan and A′oan war bands come up against a previously unknown enemy.

Not until months later could Kaybrel bring himself to talk about the savage combat with his wife, Maire, herself a powerful chieftain as kubnath of Silba Lek and as well as Moor Lek. Here he relates the battle’s events, in retrospect as the two lay together in their marital bed.


In their bedroom’s darkness, the scene came back to life before Kay’s eyes. He described it as he saw it.

“Don’O, he doesn’t realize the others are coming up his backside, he’s rallying the men to fight the company charging from the left. I spur my horse through the mess—there’s so much confusion, it’s just chaos—I try to get close enough to yell to him back-to-back, go back-to-back! He hears me, doesn’t look like he understands, but he’s a good man, he follows orders, and I’m yelling the order to our men myself.

“Right next to us on the line are Rik’s men. I can’t see him, don’t know where he is, and Rik’s monja is down—he’s already been hit. Maybe Rik has fallen, too, for all I know. So I yell the same order to them, and then Jag Bova rides up beside me. He hasn’t got all his armor on but at least he’s on his horse. I tell him to take Rik’s men back-to-back, but he knows, he’s already shouting the order and calling out Puns! Rozebek! To me!

“Through this cloud of dust, all those roiling bodies, I can see Fallon trying to shove his way to his own men. But I know he won’t get there, and he’s not going to be at my left, and then, God help us, the first wave hits.

“I push the Demon forward, into it and into it, and my blade, it’s like my blade flies by itself. You hear the ring of steel on steel, blade on shield, blade on blade, and then that thud of blade on flesh, blade on bone. You’ll see something like an arrow, it comes arching for you through the air, slow, insanely slow, but you don’t have time to think how crazy that is, because you’re too busy cutting your way through the enemy’s foot soldiers. They’re running hard at your men, and then come the horsemen, and they’re the ones you really have to fight. You can’t just slice them down like you would so much windblown grass. Because they’re kubna, same as you, and you know the glory is going to fall to one of you, him or you.

“Pretty quick I come up against one of them, a big son of a bitch, he looks even bigger inside that metal armor the Espanyos wear. The Demon lurches to ram his horse, and his dodges—very nice, I think, trained as well as mine—and before I can get done admiring him I take a swing at him and miss. He feints, but I know that trick and wait for his move, and just as I figured it comes hard on the feint. I’m ready for him, his sword slams against my shield, and damn! He almost knocks me backward off the horse. And then out of the racket somebody’s arrow bounces off his shield and in that fraction of an instant I jab at his flank and cut him.

“But the bastard doesn’t go down. He kicks his horse out of reach and then without a pause he charges, and then it’s horse on horse, man on man. We slam into each other, and if my leg hadn’t been caught between the two horses I’d’ve been thrown, but by then I didn’t give a damn. I started to swing and he did, too, and I got in a blow and then another and then another and then Fallon is there and somehow, together, we push the rider back into mob.

“God, Maire! God, I was so glad to see him.

“He grins—you know, the way he does? He doesn’t have all his armor on either, and there’s blood running down his right leg. But we have no time to think about that, because now we’re in the middle of it.”

Read what happens next! And please leave a review — your insights will be appreciated.

So What IS the Strange Language of Fire-Rider?

Begun reading the Fire-Rider series? If so, you’ve noticed some major changes in the English and Spanish languages. And you may be wondering if there’s rhyme or reason to them.

Fire-Rider takes place some 1900 years into our future, after what we think of as “developed” countries have collapsed and dissolved into the sands of time, much like the great cultures of Ozymandias. Languages change over time: they evolve in response to cultural and technological pressures, inventing new words, losing old ones, changing meanings, and changing pronunciation.

A time traveler from Beowulf’s era would be utterly flummoxed by our language, and we, suddenly finding ourselves in his Great Hall, would hear his brand of English as some strange German or Scandinavian dialect.

So the world of Kaybrel, Kubna of Moor Lek, is imagined: language has changed as much as the culture has changed. In Western European languages, such as English and Spanish, certain shifts in the pronunciation of consonants (all the letters except a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y) are predictable. B turns to p and p turns to b. G may turn into k and k into x. T evolves to sound like th; the th of the turns into the th of theater. The sounds of vowels also change, as styles in the way they’re pronounced shift.

Kaybrel, his friends, and his enemies live during the Great Lacuna, a long Dark Age that follows the fall of Western civilization. The people who find and decipher the records of his time, 3700 years from our day, call this period the “Inter-Historical Era,” because literacy had all but disappeared. Written histories disappeared because almost no one could read or write.

Without written language, dialects flourish and pronunciation becomes fluid. The collapse of technological and literate culture would lead — will lead — to rapid language change.

In imagining how places and personal names would be pronounced in the future languages of Hengliss (< English) and Espanyo (< Español), I’ve applied some of the known sound-shift tendencies. Kaybrel’s name, for example, is based on our Gabriel. Lek comes from lake; Doe from Tahoe. Some of the characters’ names are essentially the same as today’s versions: as Geoffrey has not changed since Chaucer’s time, so (for example) Mitchel has not changed in Kaybrel’s time.

Along those lines, many Americans and most British speakers drop the final -r from some words ending in r in some circumstances. Kaybrel is a kubna, a term that in his world means (roughly) “warlord.” If the k was once a g and the b was once a v and the ancient American word ended in an -r, then the word kubna stems from the old American word “governor.”

governor > guvna > gubna > kubna

 A sound that American English uses  more and more commonly — but that we don’t typically show in our spelling — is the glottal stop. It’s the little hitch we make between, say, the uh and the oh in “uh-oh.”   The way North Americans use glottal stops is highly dialectal. Despite the homogenization of late twentieth-century “standard” American English, a careful listener can still guess what part of North America a speaker comes from or — more distinctively — what his or her racial identification is by the person’s use of the glottal stop.

I believe the glottal stop will move more and more into everyday “standard” US English, so that by the time the culture of the United States collapses — and it will, just as Athens and Rome and Egypt did — a glottal stop will replace many specific sounds. The “d” in Idaho, for example, will disappear, turning the region’s name into A′o.

The language of the Great Lacuna indicates that glottal hitch with a straight “minute” sign: ′ .

Each serial installment of Fire-Rider contains a glossary. Most words’ meaning should be easy to guess from the context, but if you’re feeling flummoxed, you can easily find any Hengliss or Espanyo term at the back of the book.

Each book also contains a list of place names and a list of the characters’ names.

You can find all three of these — the glossary, the place name list, and the list of historical figures — at this website, too.


Kaybrel Fire-rider: A Saga Goes Live

We’re delighted to announce publication of the first installment of the Fire-Rider saga. Book I, A Gift for the Kubna, sets the scene in a post-apocalyptic, ice-age world populated by the survivors of the collapse of the Mercan  Empire, a legendary extinct civilization spread around the globe by the long-dead Old Ones.

Their descendants live in a post-literate, feudalistic agrarian society, struggling to survive and locked in an unending war between Hengliss northerners and Espanyo southerners. Book I joins the Hengliss war bands of Okan and A′o allied under the brilliant Okan Brez Lhored of Grisham Lekvel, as they celebrate their triumph over their enemy at Roksan. As the sacked city burns to the ground, Kaybrel, the powerful and dangerous governor of an Okan province called Moor Lek, comes into possession of the orphaned Tavio Ombertín. Despite his intense dislike of Roksan and everything it represented, Kaybrel decides to take the youth under his protection as his camp boy.

Cover art is by Gary Bennett,, a Southwestern fine artist who served as art director at Arizona Highways magazine during its glory days, when I also had the privilege of working there.



w00t! First Book of Fire-Rider!

It’s HERE! At last, the first installment of the Fire-Rider saga has hit Amazon!

It’s taken awhile, what with the medical adventures and the project involved in learning how to navigate Kindle while setting up new imprints for The Copyeditor’s Desk. Fire-Rider is published under the Plain & Simple Press imprint, which will be reserved for nonfiction books and for fiction that is not primarily erotic in nature. Camptown Races Press will publish the erotica. 😉

FireRider takes place 1900 years after the fall of the Mercan Empire and the near extinction of the Old Ones. A period of global warming flooded coastal cities and island nations, spread havoc and famine, and culminated in a series of global pandemics. The result was a world-wide population collapse that left too few educated workers to run the power plants, mines, oil refineries, and transportation infrastructure needed to sustain civilization. A swift climatic reversal gave way to a harsh ice age and foreclosed any possibility of reviving the human race’s former technological glory.

The survivors live during a postliterate, post-industrial, post-technological dark age that will come to be known as the Great Lacuna. Rival Espanyo and Hengliss cultures  survive in agrarian, feudalistic cultures loyal only to local warlords and overlords. Chronic warfare defines their world.

The stories related in the books of Kaybrel Fire-Rider, Kubna (“warlord”) of Moor Lek, were gathered during his time by the wandering scholar Hapa Cottrite, one of the rare literate men of the Great Lacuna. Some 3700 years later, a crew of herders found a cache of crumbling documents hidden in a cave where they had taken shelter from a storm. These were the remains of the Cottrite Codex, a collection of arcana and journal entries penned by Cottrite himself. The Fire-Rider epic is a fragment of that invaluable trove, translated and narrated by the famed storyteller Estabanya Estabanya Marcanda do Tilár i Robintál do Nomanto Berdo of the Methgoan Academy of Written and Oral Performance.

A Gift for the Kubna joins the allied raiding parties of Okan and A’o before the burning city of Roksan, a major Espanyo stronghold that the Hengliss allies have defeated and sacked. It tells the story of how Kaybrel, the powerful and dangerous governor of an Okan province called Moor Lek, came into possession of the orphaned Tavio Ombertín and why he decided to take the youth under his protection.

Cover art was designed by Arizona artist Gary Bennett.



Theme and Symbol

logoWhen you’re writing fiction, theme is crucial, as we all know. Theme is what your story is about. Not the action, not the plotline, but what the story signifies — its overall meaning or message.

Not all stories can be said to have a “meaning” in some deep, artsy way. Genre fiction often exists to amuse, and so its authors can get away with recycling canned plot lines and characters developed in previous novels. But in my never-too-humble opinion, a genre novel that is just a reiteration of some canned theme is not very good reading. The best genre fiction, like the fiction we regard as “literature,” is tryin’ to tell us something.

Think of your favorite genre fiction. Right now I spend a great deal of time watching Poirot and Murdoch, themselves latter-day spinoffs of my hero Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. On the surface, they’re just detective stories. Their characterization makes them interesting. But below the surface, they all have thematic currents that carry over from story to story and that keep us coming back.

In any detective story, as we know, there’s the underlying theme of good vs. evil. In Sherlock Holmes we can discern a number of themes, one of them the power of science and intellect to combat evil. We see the same theme arise in the Murdoch mysteries, but there it’s combined with a pattern of frustrated love. Murdoch also represents the efforts of gifted women to escape societal oppression, a theme that recurs frequently throughout the series. In Poirot, the strangeness of the protagonist is just a thread in the thematic strangeness of the culture in which he moves — our culture, heaven help us!

God is great, beer is good, and people are crazy, eh?

So, what is your story about?

The first installment of my soon-to-be-published series, Fire-Rider, developed around the protagonist’s weariness with his people’s endless wars and his growing sense that much of what he has devoted his life to — revenge, disruption, and an allegedly infallible religion — is simply wrong. This theme couples with his famed wiliness — the character echoes Odysseus in a number of aspects — which can verge into duplicity when he uses it among his own people to get his way.

The second theme — duplicity and deceit — resurfaces in Book II, where it elides with issues of sin, error, and forgiveness. The second book’s theme suggests that if you really want to be macho, you must learn to forgive.

It’s tricky to weave these threads into a book-length work without shoving them in the reader’s face and without making them look forced. By and large, some hint of the theme, shown in action or setting, needs to appear early on, maybe even in the first few paragraphs. But it’s something that needs to be shown, not lectured about: for that reason one should avoid presenting any direct exposition of the theme in dialogue or narrative. At least, so I think.

Rules, as we know, are made to be broken…though probably that should not even be thought of as a “rule.” It’s just one scribbler’s opinion.

Fire-Rider Book I actually opens with a group of characters expressing sentiments exactly the opposite of the theme represented by the protagonist’s experience. The first two and a half pages show comrades in arms celebrating their triumph over an enemy city that they have breached, sacked, and burned. Not until this scene is firmly set and action has begun does a suggestion of the protagonist’s troubled heart appear:

[Kaybrel, his fierce young sidekick Fallon, and his cousin Mitch] stood taking in the view, the torched city a roaring, gaudy backdrop to the activity on the plain before it.

“Must do your heart good,” Fal said to Kay.

“You bet,” Kay said.

But his eyes said something else, Fal saw, the expression gray and pensive, far from the unrestrained joy Fallon would have felt had he stood in Kay’s boots. Tired, maybe: the fight was hard-won, and Kay and Fal had put themselves at the front line.

As for Kay, the man of the moment: What was he feeling? The smoky breeze combed his grizzled beard and hair like the hand of a woman who had been working by the kitchen hearth. He thought of Maire and the child. When he looked at the devastation below him, he did not, could not think of bygone sorrow or of the years spread out between past loss and present victory. Instead, he thought of going home.

The  narrative touches on this and then moves on. Over the course of the entire novel, Kaybrel’s weariness and nausée develop thematically. But a little at a time.

Theme is something the readers need to discern and interpret on their own. It should never be fed to them.

One tool you can use to help the reader do those things is symbolism: a concrete image that represents something abstract — an idea, a theme, a psychological concern, a cultural current, or the like. Ernest Hemingway infuses his stories with symbolism; I can’t recall a place in any of his stories where he explicitly reveals the theme in so many words. Hilariously, he denied any guilt in this line. But…if you and I could deploy imagery the way Hemingway did, we’d all be living on our yachts and punctuating our writing stints with drinking and deep-sea fishing.

One of my authors, who has just begun to explore the finer points of writing fiction, wants to develop two symbols to present a long novel’s main theme. One — the sound of an ethnic musical instrument — was an afterthought. It leaps to the fore as the novel rises toward its climax, but because we’ve never heard of it before, it jars.

I’ve suggested that, on rewrite, he should introduce the musical tradition’s sounds and sights early on, with at least a mention in the first chapter and then recurring appearances as the story grows.

So: Theme is crucial to good fiction. Symbol is a tool you can use to point to theme. And to use either of them, show, don’t tell!