An Experiment in Immersive Storytelling
Behind the Scenes:
Q&A With Tae, Editor & Propmaster

Since Q&A doesn't follow the typical format of the rest of the retelling or behind-the-scenes, I thought I'd drop a note here to make it clear that the only things I wrote were the questions (in bold). Tae's answers follow each one.
Black and white head shot photo of J.A. Hernandez. A blood red slash of color appears behind the image, as if smeared by a paintbrush.
J.A. Hernandez

Q. What did you think when you first heard about the idea of creating an immersive story?

I'm a realist, so my very first thoughts were:

  1. This is insane.
  2. How the fuck?
  3. This is going to be so much work.

If I recall, talk of how cool an immersive story would be had come up a little before, but I wasn't approached with "Hey, an immersive story would be a cool thing to work on"; it was "Hey, I want to put this together for Zarina's birthday." I was fully aware of the time crunch from the beginning, which is what made it insane. I tend to work well under pressure but starting from absolute scratch on such a large project with no idea how to make it happen was intimidating. At least I was already aware I'm married to a madman. 

Q. It's been a few years since the story played out. What was the most memorable thing about it for you?

A lot of it is kind of a blur now but a few things stuck with me. Your nightly mad scientist hair was pretty memorable. Being looked at like a nutjob while shaking bells around to clear the space for the ritual to save Zarina is burned into my memory. Taking the story completely out into a very uncontrolled public space was kind of intense. Sneaking around parking lots like you were doing was one thing, but the parts where Zarina had to go out into a public park and dig up the effigy and then conduct an anti-werewolf, curse-breaking ritual out in the open where anyone could just wander into the space gave the whole thing a deeper level of immersion (and anxiety).

Overall, the most memorable thing for me is actually the feelings I experienced during the process of creating it, which were everything from being certain I was going to murder you for involving me and being driven almost exclusively by the need to see it come to life. I knew if we could pull it off, it was going to be unlike anything any of us had encountered before. And probably ruin Zarina's ability to ever be impressed by another gift ever again.

Q. What was the most challenging part of Absolution for you?

Definitely editing. Absolution is a lot of things; it taps into a lot of genres and spans multiple mediums. That by itself would make editing it difficult. Absolution's setup, though, the whole foundation it's built on, is historical fiction. I'm a fan of historical fiction, so I have a need to do it justice. There's nothing worse for me than to read a piece that couldn't get the basic information right, especially if that information is easily available to verify. Also, Zarina is smart, curious, and definitely knows how to use Google. There was a lot of pressure for everything that wasn't the fictional parts to be very solid and logical and to be as true to the period of time we were pulling from as possible. If I were Zarina and I curiously Googled something, and it didn't check out, that would be it. Spell broken, Game Over.

Q. Of everything you worked on, what was your favorite, and why?

The wolf effigy was my favorite. I got to put myself into Ksenija Horvat's shoes. How would I feel if these events had happened to me? How would I perform this folk curse to turn a bloodline into werewolves? What would I use? What would have been available? 

The creation of the effigy was more complicated than simply sculpting it. It was a puzzle I had to figure out, and it required more than just artistic skill. Things that rely heavily on blending multiple skills are my favorite things to work on.

Q. How did the whole thing turn out compared to the initial idea? Were there any significant changes or deviations from the original plan?

The end result was way better than I was expecting, given our time limitations. I think it stayed pretty true to the initial idea, probably because we had to kind of fully flesh out most of it as we were going along. The setup of Absolution was really strong and felt a bit more like a short story, so once it was sorted, it was done; it didn't need to be touched again. All we had to worry about were the parts Zarina was going to be dealing with, and I think we knew better than to commit to too much detail, considering the dynamic nature of the experience.

On my end, there wasn't really anything that I remember that needed to change much or be adapted to fit something that had happened that maybe wasn't planned for since I worked mostly behind the scenes creating props. My only involvement in the playing out of the story was the ending ritual. I do have a vague memory of needing to change a bit about the ritual. I think we had originally planned to do it closer to dark for dramatic purposes but didn't want to be at the location in the cold after dark.

Q. What's your experience with writing fiction, and had you ever played the role of a story editor before this?

I dabble in writing fiction and angsty, dramatic poetry. Mostly short stories and one idea that has gotten way out of hand and is most certainly novel length. I've always had cyclic hobbies and interests, so writing isn't a regular thing for me. I'll focus on it for a few weeks or so and move on, then come back. It has been an interest ever since I was a kid, though, so I've been doing it for many years.

Editing was never a thing I was interested in; writing is way more fun. I edited my own stuff and helped a few people with small things in their writing but being an editor wasn't something I ever thought about or had really done. I edited Absolution because I had to; we didn't have any other choice. Zarina was the person with the kind of experience to do it, but that wouldn't have worked very well. I just had to fall back on the fact that I read a lot and am a bit of a perfectionist and then hoped it worked out.

Q. Would you edit stories from people you know? From strangers? (Why or why not?)

People I know? Sure. Maybe. If they sign a waiver first. Strangers? Absolutely not. I'm not really in the business of crushing dreams and don't want that kind of pressure. 

Q. How do you go about editing? What do you look for, and how do you spot things?

I didn't have a process for Absolution. I was winging the whole thing. Since I've been doing editing for you for so long now, I definitely developed a process.

The first thing I do is try to turn my "reader brain" off. I'm not here to see if I enjoy the piece, though I am checking to see if I start to get bored. I'm looking for obvious problems like typos, formatting weirdness, and forgotten or extra words, but my specialties are flow and continuity. I'm checking to see if things sound good and if they give strong, clear impressions. Does everything logically line up and match previously established ideas? Is a character doing something you have to be standing to do, but they are sitting down? I never spent much time on grammar; I never really cared. I write for style and feel, not technical correctness, so when I edit, grammar isn't really what I'm looking at. Something can be grammatically correct but not sound natural or fluent, and it disrupts the flow.

As a piece of essentially historical fiction, Absolution required a high level of continuity editing. Continuity editing for historical fiction is the nightmare mode of editing. It needed historical accuracy as well as strong attention to smaller details that could have wrecked the entire storyline. I was thrown into the deep end with Absolution, and to this day, it's probably one of the most difficult edits I've done, but I give that experience full credit for my fine-tuned attention to continuity details now.

Q. If you were ever to create an immersive story, what would it be about?

Probably some kind of ghost story, something inspired by the old Victorian spiritualist movement. It'd be really fun to do a modern take on it with the technology we have available now. I also think it would be a challenge to bring that kind of story out into the world, beyond the seance parlor, and make it into a full story to be played out. The concept seems like it would lend itself well to a high level of immersion. 

Q. What types of things stand out to you when reading a story? (Both positive and negative and why.)

I like strong characters and worlds. Stories don't necessarily need to have a point or a message for me to like them; they just need to make sense. I'm more concerned with whether it's a world I want to be in and characters I want to spend time with or not. I also like authors skilled in descriptive writing that creates a strong, clear sensory experience without overwhelming you with too much detail that just becomes tedious.

My eye for mistakes and various continuity issues is much sharper now than it was before I began editing. Poor writing and poor editing will ruin a book for me now because I can't fully turn off editor mode. 

Q. You obviously have a wide range of prop-making skills. How did you develop or learn those, and did you ever think you'd be making props like the ones for the story?

Constant tinkering, constant learning. I've been into arts and crafts since I was a kid. Some things I intentionally set out to learn; other things I just picked up along the way. Before the internet, I spent time just messing with whatever I could get my hands on and watching shows on HGTV or DIY Network. Then the internet became an easily accessed thing, and I would spend an embarrassing amount of time searching for DIY information. I knew my absurd amount of random knowledge was handy because you always come to me for help with arts and crafts related things, but I didn't actually consider there would ever be a time when so much of it was put to use at once. Definitely never thought it would be for something like Absolution

Q. You made a weak point in the wolf effigy so it would break in a specific spot. How did you do that, and how confident were you that it would work?

Basically, I thinned a spot on the inside wall of the effigy with my thumb and tried to make a channel that was thicker than the thin spot but thinner than the rest of it to hopefully control the path the break followed. I chose the spot based on the most logical position to smash the effigy. It was natural clay that had been air dried, so if I had tried to make a thin ring all around it, there would have been a risk of it crumbling or cracking before it was supposed to. I was about 80% sure it would work. 5% uncertainty because I wasn't able to test run it myself, and the other 15% uncertainty was due to having no idea what Zarina's hammer-wielding skill level was. I didn't have time to make a test effigy. Between the amount of time it took to actually fashion it plus the drying time, I don't think I could have fixed any issues if there had been a problem. I had to let it go and hope for the best. Thankfully, it all worked out.

Q. Were any props, art pieces, or practical effects from any type of media from your childhood that stood out to you? If so, what and why?

I don't think there are any specific standouts from the usual things that tend to influence people with my interests. I was influenced by horror to some degree, particularly slashers, because of the gore effects and creative kills. Growing up around rock and metal also exposed me to some really interesting stuff. Stage shows from acts like Alice Cooper, GWAR, and Iron Maiden were an influence on me. I've always liked album art in metal because so much of it is either horror or fantasy influenced. Any art that is horror or horror adjacent gets my attention.

I think the thing that had the most significant impact and influence on me was being able to experience Halloween as a kid in the 80s and early 90s. Halloween was always my favorite holiday because it was like getting to live in a world filled with my favorite things for one night. Instead of admiring cool effects in movies, I got to try to make myself in those images and roam among others who had done the same. I was a kid, so I was pretty limited to grease paint and blood capsules, but trick or treating gave me the chance to see the kinds of things you see in the movies up close. My neighborhood spoiled us on Halloween.

There were three houses that I vividly remember that got me every year. One with the standard kind of cheesy setup of putting your hands in the bucket of eyeballs (peeled grapes), the guts (cold spaghetti), and then lifting a serving tray lid for a moving severed head (some guy under the table with his head stuck through)!

Another was where a guy sat dressed like a dummy, so you thought he was one of those sets of clothes stuffed with things to look like a person, but it's holding a chainsaw. You would walk up next to him and bend down to get candy from the bucket, and he would start the chainsaw and chase you off his lawn. You could hear it blocks away, just the sound of the chainsaw and squealing children. You knew it was coming, but it still got you every time. We would line up on the sidewalk and go up in groups. His "attacks" were random, so you never knew if you were going to get lucky and be chased off. It was like performance art to me.

The third house was my favorite. Every year at the beginning of October, a house about a block from me would have a blue tarp set up to cover the whole yard. This man went all out. On Halloween night, right as the sun went down, a sudden symphony of screaming, cackling, creaking, and thunder would start up. The gate would open, and lightning flashes would spill onto the sidewalk. Step through the gate, and a haunted maze filled with animatronic installations would swallow you in its green and purple glow. A vampire springing out of a coffin, ghosts floating around, a mummy groaning off in the corner, zombies scattered about, and my all-time favorite: the pit and the pendulum set up. The pendulum would swing back and forth as the body on the table jerked, its neck slashed halfway through with blood all over the table. Those were the props that really inspired me.

Q. When you are creating art, do you have anything you do that helps motivate or inspire you? (Either per piece or in general)

Music. If it's something kind of fiddly or tedious like beading, I'll have a background movie on instead, something I've seen a bunch of times and know really well. I don't know why I can't really listen to music and do those kinds of things. I don't listen to music when writing, either. If it's planning like outlines or world-building, then I've got a movie on. For actual writing, I've always kind of preferred silence unless I'm writing something that could benefit from certain feelings I can tap into through music. For everything else, I always have my headphones in with one or two albums on repeat or a curated playlist.

Q. What first got you interested in creating art? Crafting? What exactly is the difference between the two (if any)?

I don't remember a time when I wasn't interested, so I don't know what sparked it. My dad could draw and taught me a bit when I was pretty young. I had a grandmother that did quilting and one that did macrame. I was always drawing or coloring or doing paint by numbers. Art definitely came first. Crafting came later. I think I really took to the idea of crafting when I was in Home Ec in high school, and they gave us a sewing project. That was when I understood that I could make things that I could use, that had a sense of practicality.

The major difference for me between art and crafts is that art has an emotional or aesthetic purpose while crafts have a practical purpose. A craft can be a piece of art, but it's a practical piece of art like pottery or a jewellery box. Crafts follow steps and logic. Follow this process, and the result is this beautiful quilt. Art has less structure and serves more to provoke thoughts and emotional responses or to add visual stimuli.

Q. Knowing what you know now, would you change how you went about doing something? (If so, what and how?)

I would have glued the wolf effigy souvenir onto the base of the first cloche…Just kidding, Zarina!

My process for how I approach things will always evolve. I'll always be changing some aspects based on what I learned when I did it before. For Absolution, I got lucky, and everything worked out as well as it needed to. 

Q. A few categories of supernatural beings constantly appear in horror fiction, while others are infrequently represented. Why do you think this is? What makes certain ones stand out above the others? (vampires, werewolves, ghosts compared to the minotaur, banshee, or a weresaurus rex)

Humans are most scared of themselves. Vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and even zombies each represent some facet of being human or what a human is capable of. Humans love to have a mirror held up to them as long as the reflection in it is not too undeniably human. Minotaurs, banshees, and weresaurus rexes are "other" and give humans something to unite over. Those kinds of tales are a bit more on the inspirational side of the spectrum. Unless you're in a Lovecraft story.

Q. Vampires vs. werewolves often come up in books and films, and plenty of stories depict antagonistic relationships between the two. Why is this? And why don't we see the same thing come up with other supernatural creatures like zombies vs. bigfoot or ghosts vs. demons? Or even vampires vs. ghosts?

I'm not sure. If I had to come up with some explanation, I'd go back to what I said about vampires and werewolves representing some facet of being human. A vampire could represent control of self. Werewolves would be the loss of control and feral chaos. Vampires are neat; werewolves are messy. Vampires always have their powers, while werewolves are a slave to the moon. Vampires used to be human but once turned, they become something else (total loss of humanity), but werewolves are human except when they are in wolf form (partial loss of humanity). They could easily be associated with a ton of opposing traits that make up what it is to be human. It would make sense to use them as archetypes and pit them against each other. Or maybe it's as simple as vampires suffering olfactory sensitivity and werewolves smelling like wet dogs.

Q. Many media portrayals, particularly news outlets, display the goth subculture as strongly associated with classic vampires, like Bram Stoker's Dracula. Is this a fair association, and if so, where did this originate?

This is a bit of a loaded question. On the one hand, it's totally understandable how the association happened. I mean, we totally wear capes and fangs, creep around graveyards, spout melodramatic romantic poetry, and explode in the sun. I'm mostly speaking for myself on that last one. I don't know where it originated. The association is a bit before my time. Some elder goths may be better suited to answer that. I'm better suited to answer how "The Craft" caused most goths to get bullied for witchcraft and how a ton of us were called "Nancy" as an insult in the late 90s. If I had to guess, the association is because so many people in the subculture actually do enjoy vampire lore and have been inspired by it. I don't particularly think it's unfair, but I do think it's inaccurate. There are a lot of goths who don't actually like horror at all. Spooky doesn't equal horror. Also, insert clarification here that the goth subculture is about the music. Wearing black, loving vampires, horror, and spooky things are optional.

Q. If you were a were-creature, what type would you choose to be and why?

A were-cat. Duh.

~ Fin ~
Stick around for an interview with Zarina.
Photo of Tae Hernandez
Tae Hernandez