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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » There, but not necessarily back again. How to do it?

   
Author Topic: There, but not necessarily back again. How to do it?
MattLeo
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This just struck me as a problem that commonly arises in speculative fiction writing. You have a protagonist in the mundane world -- the world that most of us think we live in, with iPhones and streetcars and reality TV shows. You have to get him to a magical (or super-scientific) world where the action will take place, and where all kinds of wonders are possible. AND -- this IMPORTANT -- you have to get him ready for action.

We don't want to overlook that last point. You could just whisk the protagonist off to fairy-land in a blink of an eye with no explanation, but the problem is he's not ready to do anything. He probably thinks he's dreaming, or he's gone mad. You could simply let fairy-land beat it through his thick skull that he ain't in Kansas anymore, but that's wasteful and tedious. The reader knows how this is going to end up, so you're just bringing the hero up to speed.

The explanation for how the hero comes to accept the change in situation is actually more important than the explanation for how that change took place.

Edgar Rice Burroughs used an interesting technique: distraction. John Carter has a great big, old-fashioned Indian battle. He falls asleep, then(with absolutely *no* explanation) wakes up on Mars. Before he can wonder about how that just happened, he must fight a nearly identical battle with Martian natives. This battle establishes in everyone's mind that Mars works just like the Old West, except that on Mars Carter is a physical superman. He's ready to get to business, if even he's no wiser about *how* the miraculous transport occurred.

So, how many ways can you think of doing this? Here's a few off the top of my head:

TYPE 1: WAINSCOTING WORLD (magic world is dovetailed with mundane)

SUBTYPE 1A: Protagonist is informed in advance.

1A-1: A LETTER FROM DUMBLEDORE: Knowledgeable figure arrives to explain the weird things that have been happening to the protagonist.

1A-2: MY UNCLE IS A WIZARD: Protagonist is sent to live with/work with eccentric figure, whose oddities turn out to be because he's a wizard/alien/fairy/vampire (John Bellairs, HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS)

SUBTYPE 1B: Protagonist is surprised. One common tactic here is to give the protag skeptical companions. This forces the protag (along with the reader) to assume the role of proponent rather than skeptic.

1B-1: ALADDIN'S LAMP: Protagonist stumbles upon an artifact that contains a magical guide (e.g. E. Nesbit, FIVE CHILDREN AND IT)

1B-2: WORKING WISHING WELL: Protagonist tries something magic, and by golly it actually works (Edward Eager, THE WELL WISHERS)

TYPE 2: OTHER-WORLD

SUBTYPE 2A: Protagonist is informd in advance. Protagonist or his mentor know of the existence of the other-world, and develop a way to get there.

2A-1: AT LAST I'VE FOUND IT: Protagonist has been searching for a way there, and eventually comes up with the key (De Camp & F. Platt's HAROLD SHEA stories).

2A-2: TOP-SECRET AGENCY: Protagonist is introduced to a secret agency that knows about the other place; may have the key or may need the key from the protag (STARGATE movies). Protagonist believes because somebody is spending a lot of dough on this facility.

SUBTYPE 2B: Protagonist is surprised. See notes for 1B on skeptical companions.

2B-1 MAGIC WARDROBE: Protagonist explores a novel place, and gets more than he bargained for. He's primed because he's already exploring an exotic place.

2B-2 CARTER'S SHORTCUT: Protagonist is whisked to the magic place with no explanation, as in A PRINCESS OF MARS. Distracting mayhem ensues, and by the time he's safe enough to speculate about his situation the explanation doesn't matter.

2B-3 COVENANT'S COMA: Protagonist is knocked unconscious and wakes up in the Other Place. Not sure how to sell this one.

2B-4 NOT SO MAD, AFTER ALL: Protagonist humors the mad scientist building an impossible rocket to Mars, only to be forced to confront the shattering truth that the rocket works. (C.S. Lewis, OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET) We don't waste time beating the principles of the rocket trip into the hero *after* the trip strats; that was taken care of back when it was OK to be a skeptic.

2B-5 FOLLOW THE RABBIT: Protagonist follows a strange lead the tips him into a strange place (Alice in Wonderland). The intrusion of the strange rabbit into the garden helps prime the protagonist to accept the change.

Got any others?

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Robert Nowall
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How 'bout the one where the protagonist (or the guy-from-our-world) gets pulled into the Other Place by somebody who's there and needs help?

(I was looking through my copy of Five Children and It just the other day---part of a massive book-moving-around project as a subset of painting and repiping...)

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extrinsic
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The Aarne-Thompson classification system analyzes folk tale motifs for cultural commonalities. In its third edition now, the system has grown quite large. Though generally the classification focuses on recurring plot patterns, three central constituents categorize the motif patterns: event, character type, and setting. A quick assay of each area exhibits the likelihood of an infinite number of possibilities. Yet folklore's primary function of shared expression and sharing of cultural identity limits the overall potentials. Folklore's other cultural functions limit possibilities even further: make, say, do, believe, know, share cultural identity; instruct, caution, correct, control social behavior.

This broader definition of folklore than the generally accepted belief that folklore is traditional peasant social, house, and child trifles recognizes that any social cohort expresses an esoteric identity as well as an exoteric one. The terms political culture, publishing culture, workplace culture, news media culture, art culture, game culture, dating culture, etc., illustrate that folklore is alive and thriving in contemporary times everywhere.

Within the category of transporting a protagonist from a mundane (earthly normal) to a metaphysical place, event, character type, and setting has an equally near-infinite number of possibilities, only limited by the qualifiers: setting contemporary to the milieu and technology and culture from which the protagonist departs and the milieu to which the protagonist transports.

The Omnipotent Hand is Thomas Covenant's cause of transport, the way I see it. A god-like agency, anonymous, invisible, and all powerful, by way of rendering unconscious, takes antihero Covenant to The Illearth Land. This is also the method and manners of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

The Omnipotent Hand is only apparent in that the protagonist learns a life lesson as a consequence of the action, an outcome that is shaped by the Omnipotent Hand. The protagonists' prior preparations include learned skills and social behaviors that aid in surviving the lesson and a personal dramatic complication, oftentimes maturation, wanting satisfaction.

Other forms of the Omnipotent Hand snatch an unwitting protagonist from mundane life, oftentimes by an advanced culture's technology, science, or magic. Philip José Farmer's Riverworld saga is a model Omnipotent Hand preceded by numerous others and emulated frequently.

Let's see if an as yet unrealized or novel event, character type, or exotic secondary setting might be developed. The central event is a change in milieu. The central character type is a protagonist wanting or deserving a dramatic complication satisfaction. The central setting is a different one from the everyday-routine alpha one tediously familiar to audiences.

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by Robert Nowall:
How 'bout the one where the protagonist (or the guy-from-our-world) gets pulled into the Other Place by somebody who's there and needs help?

(I was looking through my copy of Five Children and It just the other day---part of a massive book-moving-around project as a subset of painting and repiping...)

Here's the problem. When I was coming up with the list of ways you could get the hero to fairy-land, I couldn't think of any that didn't feel familiar, like I've read them somewhere or saw them in a movie. That's actually good. The serious purpose of the list is to catalog the ways a protagonist can be prepared for action in each method. I often see MSS where the poor protagonist flounders around for several chapters like a fish out of water.

So I thought I'd start my list with methods I could find actual examples of in books or movies, so I could study how the writer manages to get the hero into harness.

The method you suggest sounds familiar, but I can't place my finger on an example of its use -- probably a senior moment. It does prompt me to think of at least two stories that don't quite fit into the list yet: Peter Pan and Star Wars Ep IV.

Anyhow, you have E. Nesbit in your library? Obviously you are a man of refined juvenile taste.

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History
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One method not mentioned is that the protagonist changes "our" world to the fantasy one--e.g. Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny (and the many subsequent volumes.

Of course, the protagonist in the opening volume is unaware he is not of our world when this first occurs.

The author introduces the clever concept that our world is only one of many thousands, possibly millions, of shadows of the one true world to which his protagonist and warring siblings belong.

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:

Let's see if an as yet unrealized or novel event, character type, or exotic secondary setting might be developed. The central event is a change in milieu. The central character type is a protagonist wanting or deserving a dramatic complication satisfaction. The central setting is a different one from the everyday-routine alpha one tediously familiar to audiences.

Well, that's where we want to go eventually, but before you can set out to create something new you've got to familiarize yourself with what's already out there.

Aarne-Thompson has always fascinated but frustrated me. It seems like it should be a goldmine for ideas, but I haven't found it all that useful, just interesting. I think that's because classification schemes like that are inherently somewhat arbitrary. They seem impose a kind of order on chaos, but it's an *arbitrary* order.

I find Vladmir Propp's approach to the folktale more useful for a writer. It's not as universal as Aarne-Thompson attempts to be, but rather focuses on the motifs found in Russian folk tales. Within that narrow focus it does much more than put motifs into a static classification scheme. It explains how those motifs work together to create, complicate and resolve conflict.

My idea is to be even narrower, to focus on a single story problem: getting the reader to accept that the hero has been transported to the magical world. I chose that problem because it's a common one I see writers struggle with all the time.

Now as for the Omnipotent Hand in the Convenant story, my guess is that it doesn't much matter whether it is the Omnipotent Hand or the Wang-dang-doodle of Whee; if the hero (and the reader) accepts that he actually is in the Other Place, it doesn't really matter what the in-universe explanation for that is.

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History
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P.S. I've personally only sent a protagonist "down the rabbit hole" once. This is in my unpublished novel The Kabbalist: The Foundation of the Kingdom which a few here have read samples. However, this was (almost) predetermined, since traditional real-world existing Jewish religious and mystical literature and folklore suggests one can only enter the supernal "worlds" (higher emanations of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life between G-d and Creation) through purification and prayer...to which I add a touch of a little Jewish "magic".
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extrinsic
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quote:
MattLeo;
The serious purpose of the list is to catalog the ways a protagonist can be prepared for action in each method.

Event, character type, and setting and their infinite possibilities apply to that activity as well.

Education, training, and experience loom large in preparation events. Hank Morgan is prepared by familiarity from trading and superintending firearms and machinery making and sales for his adventures in Twain's King Arthur's court.

The unprepared protagonist is trickier. Perhaps revelations that life has prepared the protagonist in unforeseen ways might serve. Wonderland's Alice and Oz's Dorothy are similar in that regard, both raised to be compasionate, respectful, and courteous, which sees them past rough patches. Until they confront their adversaries. Then, still, the adversary's wickedness must be corrected.

A protagonist "who flounders around" for awhile is learning and learns to cope with whatever the Omnipotent Hand has thrown the protagonist. Making discoveries--do--and having reversals--happen--along the way, after an introduction act, the orphaned troupe member learns to make fire, make tools and weapons, find shelter, find food and water, and find allies. Or is raised by wolves, bears, horses, eagles, robots, gnomes, or apes.

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by History:

The author introduces the clever concept that our world is only one of many thousands, possibly millions, of shadows of the one true world to which his protagonist and warring siblings belong.

Now here's a problem for my classification scheme: what if it's the the mundane world that doesn't exist! I think I'll file it other "Other-world" though. One of the essential features of the wainscoting world is that if you happened to know Ron Weasley's family's address, you could pay them a visit.

I can think of another example of "the real world isn't real"; Paul Park's A PRINCESS OF ROUMANIA. In that novel Romania is the dominant world power; *our* world is just an elaborate magical construct ginned up by the royal family in which to hide the heir to the throne from their enemies.

It's not just a clever book; it's a brilliant one. It's hard to think of another book that filled me with such numinous awe. That goes a long way to convincing a reader that the Other-World is real. But sadly the story suffers from the mid-epic prolapse extrinsic diagnosed in another thread. If Park had simply tied up his story at the end of the first volume, A PRINCESS OF ROUMANIA would stand among the very finest fantasy novels ever, but the story collapses into a weakly structured four-volume epic. From a marketing standpoint I guess that's successful. I bought the following three volumes in the hope that Park would pull the story together, but by the time you get to volume IV of anything, tying it up hardly matters.

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
Wonderland's Alice and Oz's Dorothy are similar in that regard, both raised to be compasionate, respectful, and courteous, which sees them past rough patches.

This is absolutely spot-on, although truth be told Alice has a naughty streak in her.

I think Gregory Maguire picked up on this in WICKED, and inflated it to satirical proportions. Dorothy isn't just an ordinary girl; she's an archetype of ordinariness and thus not in the least ordinary. She actually kind of bends Oz around herself. Maguire suggests that in Oz, Dorothy is about as easy to deflect as a two thousand pound artillery shell.

I think when a hero achieves *agency* in the Other-World, your work is largely done.

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extrinsic
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Aarne-Thompson system's shortcoming and strength in my estimation is its chaos. How many variations on the orphaned, undiscovered-royalty uncovered need be listed separately? Whether male or female, young or old, mundane or metaphysical, supernatural, paranormal, or everyday, whether Ender Wiggin, Oliver Twist, Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, Katniss Everdeen, or Ellen Ripley.

The strength of its chaos is harder to qualify; that is, numerous variants underlie any one combined event and character type, from which other unnamed variants may be derived and to which any one may be compared and contrasted.

[ October 26, 2013, 12:01 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Robert Nowall
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The two examples of Our-World-Guy drawn into Fantasy World that come to my mind are from Alan Dean Foster ("Spellsinger") and Barbara Hambly (I don't remember the title.) Doubtless there are others.

L. Sprague de Camp had a series of stories with the nifty notion that when the people in that world died, they came to Our World---we were their afterlife.

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extrinsic
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quote:
MattLeo:
getting the reader to accept that the hero has been transported to the magical world.

This speaks to larger creative writing principles: the three meaning spaces of writing and immersing readers into a narrative setting.

Coleridge's willing suspension of disbelief principle asks not that readers suspend disbelief but that writer not jeapordize it.

Tolkien's exotic secondary settings principle demands that event, character type, and setting engage readers' curiosity and empathy.

Lévy-Bruhl's participation mystique principle calls for engaging readers as participants in the dramatic action. If readers want to warn the protagonist to stay out of the liminal dark and scary basement, are angry at the cops who goad, prod, and provoke the protagonist into fighting back, feel the romantic affections of a love interest, are as awed and wondered as the first humans on Rama, they participate in the event, character type, and setting of the drama's mystique.

Transport readers to the "Other-World" through engaging their participation in the event, character type, and setting.

[ October 26, 2013, 09:00 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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First "protagonist pulled into other world to help someone there" story that came to my mind is KINDRED by Octavia Butler.

Robert, were you thinking of Barbara Hambly's Darwath Trilogy?

Joy Chant wrote some YA fantasies that might also qualify under the above category, and there may be other YA fantasies. Perhaps YA protagonists adapt more quickly to "other" worlds because they're still trying to figure out this one?

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JSchuler
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Not sure where Bastion from The Neverending Story would appear on this list. A variant of 2B-1?
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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by JSchuler:
Not sure where Bastion from The Neverending Story would appear on this list. A variant of 2B-1?

Never seen it, but variations on the magic wardrobe are common. Let's say the hero is visiting his uncle, who has a cabin on the lake; he takes a canoe out to the island in the lake, and finds a wall with a door in it... That's your basic magic wardrobe motif. The hero goes exploring, and finds something greater than he ever dreamed possible -- door to the Other Place.

Once you have your magic wardrobe, you can add complications, e.g., the door needs a key -- like the big skeleton key the her glimpsed inside Uncle Nathan's locked writing desk...

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extrinsic
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How does or is a protagonist prepared for going to another place? A principle on point is prepositioning. If the protagonist will be called upon to use a skill, the source of the protagonist's skill ought or should be revealed beforehand.

Twain's Hank Morgan worked with firearms, machinery, and as management beforehand. Twain only drops a hint or two, though. Not much else is needed though a reminder later might be helpful.

A battle-hardened veteran drops a clue or two: military service type and training location, rank, war zone, etc.

One frequent preparation motif in fiction and other media is the arming scene. The hero girds on armor and weapons. This scene can be seen in anything from the Home Alone saga to Swarzenegger films to Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat Jimmy D'Griz to Alien and Aliens to Harry Potter, ad infinitum. The arming scene where a novice girds on is often predicated on practicing with weapons.

In Robert Heinlien's Farnham's Freehold, Hugh Farnham is a survivalist from the era of fallout shelter popularity. He's prepared for the novel's post-apocalyptic setting by his preparations for nuclear war.

If emotional preparedness, methods that occur often are stepped transitions from normal everyday routine to increasingly unusual events. The Poltergiest saga uses those methods, as does Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Not to mention, escalating emotional states increases tension as well.

I've seen protagonists prepared intellectually, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and vocationally by any number of prepositionings and stepped transitionings. Those two are basic principles for preparing characters and readers for an action to come. If given beforehand, readers infer a matter will later have relevance. This is Chekhov's Gun.

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Merlion-Emrys
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MattLeo you MUST IMMEDIATELY see the Neverending Story and read the book. Both are great but the book especially...it kind of does some very interesting things with the sort of stuff you are talking about, among other things.

I don't think Bastion's journey necessarily fits any of what's been presented here.

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
How does or is a protagonist prepared for going to another place? A principle on point is prepositioning. If the protagonist will be called upon to use a skill, the source of the protagonist's skill ought or should be revealed beforehand.

Twain's Hank Morgan worked with firearms, machinery, and as management beforehand. Twain only drops a hint or two, though. Not much else is needed though a reminder later might be helpful.

Which is sound advice, but like any advice can be taken in wrong directions. I am thinking of Captain S.P. Meek's SUBMICROSCOPIC, and the sequel AWLO OF ULM.

In those stories hero uses a shrinking machine to visit the sub-atomic world. It's much like our own, and even has people living in it. They speak a dialect of Hawaiian, which by an incredible coincidence we know our hero understands, Captain Meek having mentioned in advance that the hero had been brought up in Hawaii.

It's peculiar that a writer should be punctilious enough to feel obligated to explain how the hero understands the speech of the natives, yet settle on such a feeble coincidence. But somehow the stories still work. The explanation Meek offers is so feeble that no reader would be bothered to examine it critically. It *doesn't get in the way*.

I think this gets to those axes of meaning you like to talk about. The pulp story is all about the participation mystique. It has a certain license to impose upon our skepticism, as long as the improbabilities are neatly contained in some box that we can set aside and ignore

I think that's what I'm getting at; for an adventure story to work, you have to put your protagonist to work so the reader's imagination can get swashbuckling along with him. The dodgy bits have to be boxed up and put to bed with reasonable dispatch. Dangling them too long in front to the reader is an invitation to a critical examination they probably can't stand up to.

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by Merlion-Emrys:
MattLeo you MUST IMMEDIATELY see the Neverending Story and read the book. Both are great but the book especially...it kind of does some very interesting things with the sort of stuff you are talking about, among other things.

I don't think Bastion's journey necessarily fits any of what's been presented here.

I hear and obey.
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extrinsic
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quote:
MattLeo:
It's peculiar that a writer should be punctilious enough to feel obligated to explain how the hero understands the speech of the natives, yet settle on such a feeble coincidence. But somehow the stories still work. The explanation Meek offers is so feeble that no reader would be bothered to examine it critically. It *doesn't get in the way*.

What we have here is a matter of motif dropping that does not call undue attention to it. What else does being raised in Hawaii do event, character, or setting development-wise? More and subtly than just justify that the microcosm's people speak Hawaiian, I imagine.

How artfully or not the motif dropping is done, to me, would matter if other motifs meaningfully tie up to the motif. If the Hawaii references do not connect meaningfully to other motifs, I'd suspect that the Hawaii references are revision artifacts added later, somehat clumsily, so that the protagonist's ability to understand Hawaiian makes somke sense. Only matters that the motif relevance is missing or inaccessible and hence artless or is relevant, accessible, and meaningful.

[ October 29, 2013, 03:29 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Reziac
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quote:
Originally posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury:
Robert, were you thinking of Barbara Hambly's Darwath Trilogy?

Which is now five books. Hambly's other crossovers include the Windrose series, the Sun-Cross series, and her Star Trek book Ishmael (which is better than it sounds).

http://www.barbarahambly.com/hambooks.htm

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Robert Nowall
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quote:
Robert, were you thinking of Barbara Hambly's Darwath Trilogy?
Probably...at least I remember a few details of it...
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