NerdGuy Friday #20: A bit of PSI

NerdGuy Fridays: Dispatches from a Writer's Brain - M. L. Buchman

No, I’m not talking about atmospheric pressure (pounds per square inch), the Planetary Science Institute, or even the Italian Socialist Party (Partito Socialista Italiano). I’m going to briefly nerd out on parapsychology.

It was a hot ticket in 1970s science fiction, perhaps most prominently led by Anne McCaffrey’s To Ride Pegasus and the seven follow-on novels of her Talents Universe. Also, the famous human-draconic telepathy of her dragon series and empathy of the Dragonsigner trilogy.

At that time, there was hope, perhaps even belief, that this was the next evolutionary step of humankind. Thought psi has faded far back in popularity, it still lies at the core of some stories, the movie Looper comes easily to mind.

I think that in fiction, interest in these skills was mostly wiped out by the superhero genre of the X-men and their ilk.

A Brief Background

Back in 2016, Desiree Holt approached me with an invitation to include a romantic suspense story in her upcoming Kindle Worlds launch. I was beyond flattered. She was one of the early powerhouses in RS. It was only later when I had read several of her books that I realized quite how different our styles were.

Desiree Holt was a queen of super steamy romantic suspense mixed with telepathy. While I’m not the former, my old love for McCaffrey as a teen kept me in the plan. Plus, it was only one short novella, to which I’d never get the rights back. That was clear in the Amazon Kindle Worlds contract and I was fine with that for the promotional opportunity.

I wrote the story (more on that in a moment), and it rocketed to #2 in Kindle Worlds and remained there for over a month. I made a little money as did Desiree, which was nice, but I was befuddled by the title’s popularity. No other title from that initial 10-book launch in her world came close.

Then, Amazon shut down Kindle Worlds. The rights reverted to a story I never expected to have back. Desiree offered to republish it under her own imprint, or fully revert the rights if I removed her characters. I chose the latter and redrafted the last half of the book with new secondary characters.

The Sum Is Greater became At the Slightest Sound. And, because I can’t write just one (writing is a lot like potato chips for me), I followed it with At the Quietest Word. Now books #3 and #4 in the series are coming to complete the series. (August 25th and September 29th)

But that’s not what I want to nerd about.

PSI Powers

Psi (or parapsychology) is the study of extra-sensory perception and even telekinesis (moving stuff with your mind).

Wikipedia offers these as the primary areas of study of psi:

  • Telepathy – mind-to-mind communication
  • Precognition – knowing ahead
  • Clairvoyance – seeing remotely
  • Psychokinesis – moving stuff with the mind
  • Apparitional experiences – seeing ghosts, or sensing from their belongings

The problem I had with writing about any of these is that they’re sort of the “first idea.” One thing that writers talk about when they’re together is the “low-hanging fruit” of the first idea that comes to mind. As we advance as writers, we learn to discard the first, second, perhaps even the third idea. Why? Because that’s what comes to everyone else’s mind too. How do we make it new?

Telepathy with dragons? Empathy with fire lizards? Absolutely unique. But Ms. McCaffrey’s “Talents Universe” is an obscure body of work by any comparison. Why? I think it’s because she went right up the middle lane. This person is a telekinetic and can move things. This one is precog and knows things before they happen (even if sometimes too late). They are flawed people with challenges of their new talents putting them in danger.

So, I set out to make my characters different. Nothing magical. Not Dragonriders of Pern. But different.

A Different Kind of Psi

For the original title, I went poking around for ideas that I’d never heard of before. I’ve had a great deal to do with sound in my life. I was a professional soundman for live theater for several years. I’ve sold high-end home stereos, even redesigned the entire living room of one of my first house specifically for the best acoustics from my ridiculously tweaky sound system. I’ve studied music for years on a wide variety of instruments (regrettably with little talent and a tin ear) but I love music and acoustics.

I’d never read about acoustics as a psi talent (not that its a genre I’d read heavily, but it sounded different). Then I got to thinking about the fact that it was a romance. How could I use an acoustic psi talent to bring my couple together?

At the Slightest Sound places a Night Stalker and a Delta Force operator in the weeds of an operation gone bad. She can create little sounds to distract the enemy. They quickly discover that, with the hero’s help, she can create far bigger sounds.

But that was too easy. It had that low-hanging fruit feel to it. Add in that my Delta Force heroine can’t hear the sounds she makes, and is debilitated whenever my hero amplifies them, and I felt I finally had something interesting.

Continuing the Quest

While putting my own characters into book #1 to replace Desiree’s, my characters informed me that this was a four-book series. I’d only intended to republish that first book, but the characters had other ideas.

So, I needed more cool psi.

Telepathy

Well, telepathy was a pretty easy idea. So, how to make it more interesting? It’s a romance, so having it strictly connect the hero and heroine rather than being some kind of broadcast made perfect sense. But what if it wasn’t that simple?

What if… Hmmm….

In writing, we often get a character’s internal dialog as distinct from their narration. Something that they might mutter aloud to themselves if they were alone. Smooth move, Matt. Way to really not make a good first impression. (Let’s just say that was practically a mantra back in my dating days. I was never, even remotely, Mr. Smooth.)

What if one character could hear the other’s internal dialog, but not vice versa? That should make them both a bit nuts. Oh, and add a distance limitation on that ability, but not on the telepathy? Cool. That gave me: At the Quietest Word.

Seeing and Tracking

The next couple was fun. I already knew that my hero was a remote-viewer, a clairvoyant…with issues. He could go out and look places. The problem was that he had to walk his vision there–even worse, if he tried to “run” his vision, it was beyond exhausting. So, he could go and look at nearby places, but only if he wasn’t in a hurry.

I wanted to match him with a complementary talent. The heroine…is a tracker. This is a fascinating skill that the deep practitioners call an art. A trainable art, but an art. What if–a writer’s favorite question–what if it was more than an art? What if our heroine could feel where people had been? A bit of the apparitional skill above?

And what if, like my first couple, their skills could somehow augment each other, but only in a strange, fractured way?

That last was an important part for me. I didn’t want superheroes. I wanted normal people whose exceptional skills had just as many problems as everyone else has with daily life. That gave me: At the Merest Glance.

The Empath

The empath decided that she stood at the center of my team. I’m not quite sure when that happened, and neither is she. But it had been useful to her Hollywood career to know exactly who had good intentions and who were the total shits.

But I couldn’t seem to find a psi talent that would be an interesting challenge for her. That would somehow match what was broken in her, or something like that.

It was my wife who solved the problem right away. Regrettably, as I’m a bit of a pigheaded writer, she had to suggest it several times before I could finally hear it. Who better for an empath, head of a team of psi talents, than a normal human–except he was the only human whose emotions she couldn’t read.

And, as an appropriate counter gift, he’s actually very good at recognizing everyone’s emotions (despite no special skills). Everyone’s except his own, of course.

And that’s how I came up with the many skills and four novels of Shadowforce: Psi.

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