published Thursday, February 20th, 2014

Wizard on Fire: 'Dresden Files' burning up bookshelves

‘THE DRESDEN FILES’

1. Storm Front (2000)

2. Fool Moon (2001)

3. Grave Peril (2001)

4. Summer Knight (2002)

5. Death Masks (2003)

6. Blood Rites (2004)

7. Dead Beat (2005)

8. Proven Guilty (2006)

9. White Night (2007)

10. Small Favor (2008)

11. Turn Coat (2009)

12. Changes (2010)

13. Side Jobs (2010)

14. Cold Days (2012)

15. Skin Game (May 2014)

“Codex Alera”

1. Furies of Calderon (2004)

2. Academ’s Fury (2005)

3. Cursor’s Fury (2006)

4. Captain’s Fury (2007)

5. Princep’s Fury (2008)

6. First Lord’s Fury (2009)

For some authors, coming up with the beginning to a new novel can be a time-consuming, agonizing process filled with lots of writing tossed in the computerized trash bin.

Jim Butcher works a bit differently.

“What I absolutely always have is where the book is going to start, where the big finale is going to be, what the middle event is going to be, and about half a dozen one-liners I’m going to use,” he says. “After that, I just start working.”

Take his 2004 book, “Blood Rites,” the sixth in his “Dresden Files” series, which is written from the point of view of Harry Dresden, a wizard and private investigator. Its opening came from a scene that had been percolating in Butcher’s mind.

“I knew that, at some point, I wanted to have a beginning in which Harry was running through a burning building with a box of puppies in his arms,” Butcher says.

Of course, that would be too much of a walk in the park, so he also added:

• Harry being chased by demon gorillas.

• Who are flinging their explosive poo at him.

• The puppies turn out to be Foo Dogs, supernatural guardians for the ancient temples of China.

• After dropping them off with their rightful owner (except for one hiding under the seat of his VW Bug), Harry is attacked by a vampire on his way out.

Pretty much a day-in-the-life for Harry, whose trials, tribulations and terrors have been documented in 13 novels and one short story collection, with the 14th novel, “Skin Game,” due in May. What started as a college class project from a taunting teacher has turned into novels — the last several winding up on the New York Times bestseller lists — graphic novels, a role-playing game and a short-lived (and often fan-maligned) TV series. Butcher says he envisions “20-ish” books in total for the series, including an “apocalyptic” trilogy to wind things up.

“You can see something building, but you’re not exactly sure what it’s building to,” says Mark Compton, a 40-year-old from Ooltewah who has read all 14 books. “He’s putting together pieces of a very large puzzle.”

For his part, Butcher describes his success as “something of an ongoing surprise to me.”

“I remember the early days when nobody would show up for an appearance and nobody would get a book signed,” the 42-year-old says from his Missouri home.

A confessed fan of detective novelist Robert B. Parker’s “Spenser” series, Butcher blends extensive supernatural goings-on with snarky, hardboiled one liners and weaves them into the clue-by-clue tapestry of mysteries. Over time, the Dresden books have become increasingly complex, with plots that twist, turn and double back on situations in previous books. Characters die or become utterly changed. Peripheral characters develop extensive, important back stories. And things just keep getting tougher and tougher for Harry.

In previous novels, he discovers he has an 8-year-old daughter he never knew about, then must kill her mother to save the world.

He is forced to become the Winter Knight, essentially the hitman for Mab, the wickedly insane queen of the Winter Sidhe (the Faeries Court, for those not in the supernatural know) and not someone you really want to have as a boss. Then his best friend’s daughter and Harry’s wizard apprentice is tricked into becoming the heir to the throne of the Summer Sidhe, kind of making her Harry’s sworn enemy.

Oh, and there are vampires and demons and angels and criminals and other wizards and … well, let’s just say lots of things both human and not … that either want to kill him or want to use him for their own ends.

“Wisdom comes from experience and experience comes from making bad decisions, and Harry’s made a lot of those,” Butcher says. “Harry is sadder and wiser … He’s more isolated than he was before, but he also has developed these friendships that he hasn’t had in the past.”

Trent Miller, who has read all the Dresden books, says he’s pulled in by the richly developed world and relationships that Butcher invents.

“This environment he’s created, this world that’s close to our own, but it’s so full of life and flavor, you can’t help but dive into it,” says Miller, 27, who lives in Bradley County.

Yet by putting so much detail into Harry’s world, Butcher admits he has created a double-edged sword.

“It’s easier in that I see when part of the story isn’t filled in and I can say, “Oh, let’s go back there,’” he says. “It’s harder because you want to write something but you think, ‘That’s impossible because of these other factors that have already been set up.’ … The way this story world has been put together, you have these two facts that match up and you have a third that you want to use, but then you realize the third fact doesn’t match up to the first two.”

With double and triple crosses and ever-shifting allegiances between characters, just keeping up with the gnarled plotlines can be a monumental task. Butcher only half-jokingly says that, when it’s time to write the next novel in the chain, he goes to the fan-created Wikipedia entry for the last one to catch himself up.

“I can get very confused about my own world,” he says.

To make sure that things line up, when he’s writing he gives freshly written chapters to a group of trusted readers so they can search for any continuity errors. Some are other writers, but some are simply huge fans that he’s met online or at various conventions.

“They’ll come back and say this doesn’t make sense because of whatever reason, and they’ll pull up a quote from several books ago or reference paragraphs in other books,” Butcher says. “They’re super-enthusiastic — they’d be really terrifying editors.”

In between “The Dresden Files” novels, he’s also written several short stories and novellas that center on other characters in the series, including Harry. He’s got so much going on in his head, Butcher says, he can’t possibly get it all out just through the books.

“What I’m writing is 15 or 20 percent of the stories in my head, all these things happening with all these other characters,” he says. “I can’t tell those stories (in the books) because they’re too short or too completely alien and outside what’s happening in the ‘Dresden Files.’ They are things that Harry’s got no idea is actually happening.”

And all those tales don’t include his “Codex Alera,” a six-book (and, yes, quite complex) fantasy series he wrote between 2004 and 2009, “The Darkest Hours,” a Spider-Man novel from 2006, or his new work, a steampunk series called “The Cinder Spires,” which features sentient cats and “wizards” who can’t figure out how doorknobs work.

He has signed a three-book deal for “Spires,” but figures he has about nine novels worth of material, and says he hopes to finish the first book, “The Aeronaut’s Windlass,” by March.

Terry Wigley of Chickamauga has just started on “The Dresden Files” series, but has read all of “Codex Alera.” For him, he was sucked in by Butcher’s ability to design a plot that’s compulsively readable.

“He’s a great storyteller, the way he ramps it up and holds you to the story,” the 47-year-old Wigley says. “He’s got a good way of making you think you know what’s going to happen, then he flips it on you.”

While some might see it as a confusing burden to write two separate series at the same time, Butcher calls it “a relief.”

“Dresden is a lot of fun, but it comes from one point of view, Harry’s point of view, and that’s limited,” he says. “And, after I hang out with guy for eight hours a day for eight or nine months, I’m kind of sick of him.”

“Spires” is written from several characters’ points of view, he says, which loosens up the storytelling and, “as I like to say, I have much more rope with which to hang myself.”

Contact Shawn Ryan at sryan@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327.

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