Worldbuilding in Kansas
I never cease to be amazed how life can intersect in unexpected ways. When I was in Kansas back in April, my presence prompted fellow novelist Kevin Dilmore to recommend me to his colleagues at Hallmark. Every fall, they have Word Week, a series of activities for the writers, editors, artists, designers, etc. to focus on elements they normally don’t stop to examine. Every year they bring in a guest speaker and I was being suggested for this year’s slot given my recent worldbuilding for After Earth.
Over the summer, I heard from the duo prepping the event and after all the arrangements were ironed out, I was officially on board to come out and speak. I flew out Tuesday and spent the day being fed way too much barbecue, seeing parts of the town I missed in the Spring (such as their amazing library with the parking garage pillars painted to resemble book spines), and unfortunately, working in the amazing hotel room. It was one thing to stay at the Westin on a normal floor, but I was on the special floor this time with a terrific view of the World War I memorial and museum.
Everyone has been incredibly kind to me starting with Kevin who took time from his busy post-NYCC schedule to shepherd me around. He took me to Oklahoma Joe’s for lunch, his favorite restaurant, and while we stood on the lengthy line, he was texting with a pal, a professional competitive barbecue chef, to get sauce recommendations I should buy at the convenience store portion of the building. Joe’s, you see, is attached to a gas station and convenience store so you get unique and tasty one stop shopping. After a few texts, he arranged for Steph, a pal and someone working on the slabs.com website, also housed in the building, to come help me shop. She arrived soon after and I was buying sauces and rubs, leaving them at the cash register until after I chowed down on the fabulous Z Sandwich.
At dinner that evening, I got to meet some of the geekier members of the staff and, finally, my hosts – Katherine Stano and Sarah Bloss. We wound up at Jack Stack’s, another fine barbecue joint, and a favorite of many in attendance. The ribs and beans were pretty amazing. Once the fabulous conversation ended, I was shown one final part of town before my bloated form was returned to the hotel where I caught the back half of the debate.
On Wednesday, I reluctantly checked out and met my hosts and a new gaggle of staff for a get-to-know you breakfast. After being quickly toured through part of the corporate offices, I found myself in a conference room where I was to conduct two workshops. About fifteen people attended each one and my emphasis was on character and world creation with an emphasis on seeing where each decision leads.
The first group picked a 35 year old woman as a starting point. Pretty quickly we learned she was an alien in charge of the Federal Reserve in 2018. From there we did some extrapolation and collaborated on a premise we concluded would lend itself to a USA network summer series. Pretty fun times.
The second group started in Europe then picked a 35 year old woman as the protagonist. This one, though, was the leader of a Roma faction in 2025, trying to influence the EU’s fate externally. Her rival was also a 35 year old woman, who was trying to effect change from within. They would never be together, but discuss their beliefs with great regularity (think the debates between Xavier and Magneto). This, we decided would make for an interesting novel with far more limited tie-in options. But each choice they made led us here and it was a really useful exercise.
My pal Christine Taylor took me through the Visitor Center for an abbreviated but chockfull tour of the corporation. Then I was then taken to Union Station for a lovely luncheon with a new assortment of staffers including a different Sarah, who turned out to be a Poe scholar so we spent a lot of time discussing his works which I was about to teach back at school.
After lunch I saw a little more of the place and then prepped the audio-visual work to make certain things went off without a hitch. By 2, the place was filled with some 250 staffers. Katherine introduced me and I had to tamp down the butterflies and get rolling. The thrust of the presentation was on worldbuilding, calling on my experience at both DC Comics and with After Earth. We talked about how to freshen existing properties and how to constantly go back to the source material then adapt for modern audiences using Superman, Batman, Sesame Street, The Flintstones and others as examples. I then took them through some of my work with the new movie. I took questions, then we did some trivia questions with winners receiving autographed copies of The Essential Batman Encyclopedia (courtesy of Hallmark), Star Trek: Constellations and Batman: The Brave and the Bold #22 (courtesy of Kevin).
Suddenly, it was over. Christine collected me and I got a whirlwind tour through the company’s amazing archives, some of the departments including Licensing where she works and the Writers’ Collaborative, where Katherine lives.
By 5, Kevin had me at the airport and I was returning to home and my life as a student teacher. But this was a gratifying, fun, and humbling experience. I was incredibly well treated and welcomed by all I encountered and hope circumstances allow me back there sooner than later.