On Writing

i also did not kidnap kyle robert shultz for an interview.

I am a social creature. Clearly. Today, I have the marvelous Kyle Robert Shultz with me. (I mean, not literally. But in spirit.) Shultz is the author of multiple series set in the Afterverse, a parallel universe where myths, fairy tales, and classic stories are real events and part of history. He lives in self-imposed exile in the southern Idaho desert, far enough away from humanity to protect innocent lives should he lose control of his awesome fictional powers and rip a hole in the space-time continuum or something.

So sit down (or stand), grab a cup of tea (or a pint, or a horn of ale, or coffee, OR HERBAL TEA OR NOTHING) and settle in – we’re in for yet another treat.

***DON’T READ ON … if you’d rather not touch on how Medusa is possibly misunderstood, ponder the best parts of book birthing, and dive into the deep depths of escapism and reading.***

apparently, this gif is tradition now.

I’ve been really enjoying Deadwood. Clearly you have an excellent sense of humour. What makes you laugh? Puns? Sarcasm? The ridiculous? Naked snails?

Why, thank you! So far as types of humor are concerned, I am very much on the dry, snarky end of the spectrum. The Twelfth Doctor is my spirit animal…either him or Peter B. Parker from Into the Spider-Verse; it varies. Though that doesn’t mean that a well-executed, totally goofy pun won’t elicit a snort of mirth from me from time to time. And of course, the vast comedic potential of naked snails is not to be underestimated.

The weird thing is that my style of humor varies depending on what character I’m writing, or, to put it another way, which part of the world I’m writing in. Todd Crane’s sense of humor in the Crockett and Crane series is decidedly American, and those books are a little more goofy in tone. Nick Beasley from the Beaumont and Beasley series, on the other hand, is a gruff, no-nonsense Londoner (or rather, Talesender, in this case) inhabiting a world with a distinctly Wodehousean flavor to its funny. I’m not a Brit myself, but I have immersed myself in a great deal of Britishness over the years through books, audiobooks, radio plays, etc.

Favourite mythological figure – from any culture! – go!

You want me to choose? Have you no mercy??? Okay, I’ll take a crack at it. I think I’ll go with…Hades. I mean, his relationship with Persephone is actually pretty sweet in quite a few versions of the myth; he once trapped two would-be kidnappers in magic chairs, which is hilarious; and he literally named his gigantic three-headed monster-dog Spot. He’s awesome.

Is Medusa maligned? I feel as though she, like sharks, have terrible PR. What are your thoughts?

Yes, I think that’s very accurate. The oldest myths about Medusa describe her as having been born with her unfortunate powers, so it’s hardly her fault, even if she did end up a little homicidal over time. I mean, who wouldn’t, in that situation? Perhaps if Perseus had just taken the time to have a conversation with her instead of getting all head-choppy, the conflict could have been resolved in a more civilized manner.

so when does this book come out?? YOU CAN WRITE IT. I’LL WAIT.

Why centaurs?

No, no, you’ve got it wrong. The question is obviously “Why not centaurs?” After all, they tend to appear in one of only two over-used archetypes: the barbaric monster or the star-gazing soothsayer. It’s high time they got more diverse representation in fantasy. You’re welcome, centaurs of the world.

However, to answer your question, I will have to rewind to the original draft of Crockett and Crane Book 1: Horseman, which was entitled “Horse and Man.” The book was much, much too long, and as I was editing, I realized that there were far too many instances of my main character Todd saying “I leaped astride my mettlesome charger and, wheeling into the wind, cried out, ‘Hi-ho, Cedric! Away!’” 

Slashing these reduced the draft from 200,000 to 50,000 words. But what of poor Cedric, and Todd’s need for transportation? Then, HARK, a brilliant idea: what if Todd was his own transportation? And so, Todd became a centaur. (Part-time, anyway.) This was clearly the most straightforward solution to the problem.

What’s a key component of your writing routine?

Writing. Which sounds like a really dumb and/or sarcastic answer, but that is not my intention…let me explain. What I mean is that if I don’t sit down with the intention of actually putting words on the page, one way or another, I’m not going to get any writing done that day, or possibly ever. I don’t necessarily write every day, as some people advise, but on a day when I’ve set out to write, I only allow myself a few minutes of “planning” time. If my brain hasn’t succeeded in coming up with a workable plan, and the clock is ticking, I say, “Okay brain, you’ve had your chance,” and just launch into freewriting. Some of my best ideas have come from this method.

Does a book come fully formed into your mind like KABLAM! THE BOOK IS IN YOUR HEAD! Or do you spend years plotting methodically? Or do you metaphorically fly by the seat of your metaphorical pinstriped trousers?

KABLAM! is actually a very accurate synopsis of my process. That’s not to say I have every last detail of the story in my head from the beginning, though…at least, not consciously. Typically, I get a tidal wave of inspiration for a story, then start writing madly until I’ve at least gotten the most crucial or difficult scenes on paper. After that, it’s more or less smooth sailing. I wouldn’t quite call it “pantsing”—or is it “trousering”?—because I do have at least a semblance of a plan. I just don’t write the plan out on paper because it uses up valuable energy and spoils all the fun surprises. Plus, I look terrible in metaphorical pinstripes.

Favourite part of the entire book birthing process? (That’s a weird analogy. I apologise. BUT STILL.)

No, it’s actually a great analogy. Can we authors help it if there are similarities between the two processes? Stop judging us, tiresome normal humans. I think my favorite part is actually the middle-ish part of the story, when I’m completely caught up in the creative flow and I know exactly where I’m headed with my various arcs. Granted, when it’s over, I find myself surrounded by empty coffee cups, wildly scribbled notes on any scraps of paper to hand, and unconscious people who dared try to interrupt me during the process, but it’s all worth it.

Hardest part of the biz? (For me it’s the fame. It’s just so difficult to handle.)

The fame is crushing. That said, I think the hardest part for me is balancing the business with the art. Mainly because I’m weird and I actually enjoy the business side of things, so I can easily get too caught up in one or the other. There has to be a balance between the two, or it just doesn’t work. It’s no good trying to create my own evil business empire to rival Disney if I’m not spending plenty of time just writing books. And, on the other hand, no matter how much I love simply sitting down and writing, I won’t get very far if I don’t pay attention to my business.

Are you ready for two deep questions?

Not remotely. Back, fiend. Back, I say.

TOO LATE. I often hear that reading is a form of escapism. Personally my answer is complicated, never succinct and always essay length. What’s yours?

I’m tempted to write an essay as well, but I’ll try to control myself. My simple response to this criticism would be, how is it a criticism, and what’s wrong with escapism? Now, granted, there are probably unhealthy forms of escapism, but I have yet to meet an average reader who is “too absorbed” in the worlds of their favorite books. I would say that the particular kind of escapism which comes from books is exceptionally healthy, especially since it puts the imagination to work more than other forms of entertainment. My books are frequently referred to as “harmless fun,” but it’s usually not in a derogatory context, because harmless fun is often what people want. So it doesn’t offend me in the slightest, nor would I call anyone out for saying it. 

Also, they are most definitely not harmless fun, Steve B. on Amazon, and if you don’t see the very weighty philosophical message in Chapter Twenty-Seven of The Reckoning of Rumpelstiltskin, then that is entirely your problem, you Philistine.

Our world seems a little darker and our lives can be difficult – how do you feel picking up a book can affect that? And, as a writer, how do you feel writing a book can help?

Speaking as a reader, I believe that picking up a book—especially a work of fantasy or science fiction, since those are my go-to genres—allows me to step outside the madness for a while, which gives me both breathing space and a fresh perspective. Granted, in order to accomplish that, it needs to be the right kind of book—the kind that I attempt to write myself. There’s a certain degree of idealism in my fiction; it’s definitely not “gritty” or “grounded.” But I believe that writers of the “fairy story” (the catch-all term which both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien used for fantasy, mythology, etc.) have a responsibility to sprinkle at least a little idealism into their work, especially when writing from the Christian perspective. Our stories should incorporate what Tolkien called the “eucatastrophe,” “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce).” Especially since, as Tolkien goes on to say, “the Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Fairy Story – and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love.” (quotes from Tolkien’s “Letter 89”)

And finally – the VERY LAST QUESTION – what’s a solid tip, saying, sword, sentence, paragraph and/or elf that will help an aspiring writer?

Never tell anyone, including yourself, that you don’t know what you’re doing. Of course you don’t; you’re a writer. If you knew what you were doing, there wouldn’t be any surprises, and you wouldn’t have any fun. Pretend you do know what you’re doing, write the story anyway, and it will all turn out fine in the end. Trust me. I know exactly what I’m doing.

(And I do apologize for the deplorable lack of helpful elves.)

Thank you for stopping by, Kyle! It’s been a pleasure having you on here. I will forgive you for the lack of helpful elves one day.


You can stalk Kyle here, check out his brand-new release right here, or check out his book design business right here. (You might not need anything book designing-wise but you can still be nosy muhahahaha.)

(And if you just want a smile, go here.)

On Writing

i kidnapped suzannah rowntree for an interview (again)

Guys! Guys! I did it again! I kidnapped Suzannah Rowntree for ANOTHER interview – marvel at my prowess! Gasp at my skill! Today, we have a veritable feast of scintillating conversation, conspiracy theories about the Crusades, hot tips on researching historical novels and A BOOK ON OFFER AND ONE FOR FREE.

Right now, as you inhale (yes! INHALE!) this post, I shall be in Italy. What I’m doing in Italy, I’m not terribly sure – it’s the day before we’re leaving and I haven’t got a full itinerary ready yet. The hotels are booked but … as for the rest? Who knows. It’s going to be an adventure ‘fo sure.

So while I’m in Italy, Suzannah’s in Australia and you are seated (comfortably, I hope) in a country which I’m certain is lovely … let’s dive in and cross-examine have a nice chat with Suzannah …

Your current series Watchers of Outremer is set against the backdrop of the Crusades, what drew you to this time period?

I’ve always been in love with medieval history, but I was never really interested in the Crusades until I read Ronald Welch’s book Knight Crusader, a classic YA novel dealing with the battle of Hattin and the subsequent Third Crusade – think Richard the Lionheart versus Saladin.

I already knew about Richard and Saladin, of course. What I had somehow missed until then, was why the Third Crusade happened. The reason was that Saladin had just come within an ace of destroying a Frankish-ruled kingdom based in Jerusalem which had occupied the Holy Land for nearly a century since the First Crusade. The main character of Knight Crusaderwas a Frankish boy whose family had lived in Palestine for generations, and who had never even seen Europe. My brain exploded, because I’d always had the impression that crusading was something you went home from.

Why did some of them stay? How did they build this incredibly diverse and unique culture? What was life like for them? What was their relationship with the locals, whether Syriac Christians or Arabic/Turkish Muslims? All the stories I grew up reading about the crusades mostly focused on what happened when you got home from them. None of them focused on what life was like for the people who had roots there, either as Franks who decided to settle down and raise families and build something lasting or as people who had always lived there and were experiencing this unexpected new state of affairs with overlords from across the sea. “Someone should write a story about this,” I thought. It took a while to realise that I was going to be that person.

Little known conspiracy theory about the Crusades – GO!

Ha! OK: who ordered the murder of Raymond II of Tripoli? In the mid-1100s he was knifed by Assassins within view of his gates as he was returning from escorting his wife Hodierna and sister-in-law Melisende, who was ruling Jerusalem as its queen, a short way on their road south.

Hodierna was a famous beauty who inspired the songs of troubadours as far away as France, and one of them was even said to have sailed to Tripoli to die in her arms. Raymond was terribly jealous of her and kept her locked up, which turned their marriage sour. So she was actually leaving him at the time…but when Raymond was knifed, messengers caught up with Hodierna and her sister, and Hodierna then returned to Tripoli and ruled it until the young heir, her son Raymond III, came of age.

So…did Hodierna order the hit on her husband? Some people certainly think so. In fact, I doubt this is true: at the time the Assassins didn’t usually act as hitmen for hire, and Hodierna was already leaving Tripoli with her powerful sister, destined for a comfortable life in the neighbouring kingdom – she didn’t need to kill her husband to get free of him. Much more likely, Raymond was killed by the Assassins in revenge for his allowing the Templars to build a fortress in the mountains of Lebanon, near the Assassin stronghold.

They say that history repeats itself – do you see any repetition in what happened with the Crusades in today’s age?

Great question! Yes…and no? 

In one sense, people are always people, and the things they worry about and the way they act doesn’t change a great deal. In another sense, the Crusades were in so very many ways, a manifestation of the most unique things about medievalism. 

My focus, when I’m writing the novels, has been more on faithfully depicting the people as they were rather than drawing parallels to today’s political or religious motifs. That said, one beta reader for The Lady of Kingdoms (Book 2) told me she felt convicted about ethical fashion after reading about textile workers being kept as slaves. That had never crossed my mind, but it’s true that patterns of oppression and exploitation persist in today’s world. Another contacted me to say that the way some characters complacently referred to the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem as a particularly holy entity with God’s special favour, was uncomfortably close to American exceptionalism. Well, obviously, I’m not American and I don’t think that way about either my own country or about America! But when she pointed that out, I couldn’t stop seeing it. The temptation to presume that one’s own tribe has some kind of special divine status that will excuse the vilest deeds is one that humanity across the centuries is prone to.

But I think it’s also important to emphasise that the Crusaders have very limited relevance to world politics today, especially since they have become mascots for things, like white supremacism and racially-motivated terrorism, that would be totally alien to their worldview. Crusaders were primarily religiously motivated in a way that people just aren’t today. They couldn’t care less about banning burkas (their women also wore black veils) or shariah law (scholars believe that Muslim law courts in the crusader states were able to apply a limited form of shariah), and the crusader states spent far more of their time in negotiation or peaceful coexistence than they did in war. It’s preposterous that the Christchurch mosque shooter, for instance, described himself as a “Templar”! To be a Templar, you had to take an oath of poverty, chastity, and obedience to what was at the time a very conservative religious/military institution that answered directly to the Pope. In a nutshell, while there is a growing discomfort today between extremist Islam and extremist white supremacy, it would be false to trace this directly to the crusades. Although both take inspiration from the crusades, they are both drawing on romanticised and weaponised mythologies more than real history. 

Do you have a favourite stage of the writing process? If so, what is it? 

Absolutely my favourite stage is when I’ve written the darn thing and people are telling me how much they loved it.

But my second favourite stage would have to be the drafting process – when the words are flowing and I’m living intensely through the story and feeling super excited about it. There’s a lot of drudgery on both sides of that, but it’s hard to beat the sheer joy of creative flow.

What’s your LEAST favourite stage?

The last few revisions are always the worst. You’ve done all the work and you just want to move on to something new, and you have all these beta readers and editors getting nitpicky about details and every tiny change seems to take immense quantities of blood, toil, tears, and sweat, to coin a phrase. I call it the Grumpy Stage.

What’s your favourite book of 2019?

Haha, you know the answer to this one: M.L. Wang’s The Sword of Kaigen.It’s an Asian-inspired indie fantasy that caught me completely unawares and blew my socks all the way off at the start of the year. It hasn’t exactly been all downhill since then, but I think it’ll be a long time until a story sweeps me away like that again. The heroine is to die for, and it’s one of those books that simmers on a slow, intense burn for pages and pages before erupting into something utterly breathtaking.

[Honestly – that was one of my favourite books too. Can’t thank you ENOUGH for the recommendation.]

What’s a top tip for researching a historical novel?

Don’t wait until you’ve answered all your questions to start writing. But also, start early and don’t stop researching until the book is done. Everything you read will give you inspiration and guidance at every stage of writing and editing.

It also helps to be honest with yourself upfront that you’re guaranteed to make an embarrassing mistake somewhere. It’s OK. It happens to everyone. 

What’s happening soon that you are excited about?

Well, Book 2 in this series, The Lady of Kingdoms releases on the 26thof November! I’m particularly thrilled about this one because it’s probably my favourite instalment of the whole story (which will be 9 books long, DV). Multiple beta readers have told me that it left them feeling slightly giddy. So if you’re up for a mild literary intoxicant, don’t miss this one! It has celestial dragons and people getting assaulted with textiles! 

Thank you, Suzannah for stopping over. Of your own free will.

On a side note – I highly recommend signing up to Suzannah’s newsletter. With juicy tales from history and banging book recommendations, I quite enjoy them.

Suzannah Rowntree lives in a big house in rural Australia with her awesome parents and siblings, researching and writing historical fantasy fiction.

The Watchers of Outremer series began with A Wind from the Wilderness (on sale for just 99c this month!) and Children of the Desolate (free on the author’s website).

Books, On Writing

i kidnapped Suzannah Rowntree for an interview

I have Suzannah Rowntree, author of Ten Thousand Thorns, with me today. Well, not really because … we happen to live on different continents. But with the wonder of the internet, she is here, with me on my blog …
 
// 1 //
WHEN DID YOU THINK ‘LET ME SET THIS FAIRY TALE IN CHINA’ AND WHAT BROUGHT IT ABOUT?
Haha! OK, I’ll be honest with you: it was while I was watching a movie called THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM with my sisters. I know, a lot of wuxia fans detest that movie as a lamesauce American homage to the genre, but then again, it does have that epic Jet Li/Jackie Chan duel in it, and none of the great Chinese wuxia films have that, so. I’d always loved these adventurous, fantastic, and beautiful martial arts films (CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON and HERO must be the ones most familiar to Western viewers), but it was while I was thinking about the philosophical underpinnings to Taoism as they cropped up in THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM that I got the idea of telling Sleeping Beauty in this style. It occurred to me suddenly that in China, a princess wouldn’t be cursed to sleep for a hundred years: on the contrary, she would meditate, not sleep, and it would be this wonderful spiritual blessing. Or would it?
 
This would also give me the opportunity to write a Sleeping Beauty retelling that was absolutely chock-full of kung-fu action scenes. I mentioned the idea to my bro the same evening, and from the look of awe and anticipation that crossed his face, I knew it was a winner.
130227-the-forbidden-kingdom-witch.gif
 
// 2 //
THE WISE SAYINGS – HOW AND WHERE DID THEY COME FROM? DID YOU MAKE THEM? CAN I STEAL YOUR BRAINS? WERE THEY INSPIRED FROM SOMEWHERE?
I’m terribly sorry, I didn’t make them up myself. I don’t have that level of brains! I just spent a lot of time trawling through collections of Chinese proverbs online. Aren’t they marvellous? I did this because my Chinese beta reader told me that one’s martial arts master is supposed to speak in wise riddles, which the disciple is then supposed to figure out for himself. And if you can figure out what your martial arts master is saying, that proves you’re worthy to be his disciple. I thought the best way to get that effect and make it authentic would be to pepper his dialogue with gems of Chinese wisdom.
 
// 3 //
HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU TO WRITE TEN THOUSAND THORNS?

37826744

The actual writing wasn’t too bad, though with other projects in the mix it took about a year from beginning to end. I took a month to write the first draft, a month to write the second draft, and another month to apply the edits suggested by my first-round beta readers. It usually doesn’t take me this long to do edits, but I had a Chinese
beta reader whose critique was very challenging and far-reaching. He gave me amazing help.
 
// 4 //
WHAT WAS YOUR WRITING PROCESS LIKE?

I tend to plan on a macro level. I’ll start with a concept and some research. I watched a lot of Chinese films and read two very long classic wuxia novels to prepare, which took me months. I also watched the director’s commentary for CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (yes, I spent a lot of my “work” days watching entertaining foreign films. I did not feel guilty about this at all).

I kept detailed notes of interesting things I noticed that seemed relevant to the story’s theme or a fun part of the martial arts story world: blood brothers, shocking betrayals, intense tea nerdery. Once I had all these details under my belt, I was able to construct a basic plot outline that expressed the theme and drew on all these elements that I enjoyed, hopefully also weaving them into something new. Then it was just doing the writing itself, which I usually do in a boring manner from nine till five with the assistance of silence and a succession of cups of tea. giphy-6
One thing I did do differently for TEN THOUSAND THORNS was to adopt a slightly different writing style than usual. It’s a bit more pulpy, a bit more humorous, and draws on the diction (in English) of Chinese friends and literature.

 

// 5 //
I WAS REALLY IMPRESSED BY THE TITULAR ‘THORNS’ – DID THE IDEA FOR WHAT THEY WOULD BE SPRING INTO YOUR MIND OR WAS IT A TAKE ON THE FAIRY TALE YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO DO?
Aha! That particular concept just came packaged along with the genre. Once I connected the dots between Sleeping Beauty and wuxia, it was obvious what I was going to do with the thorns. The Chinese proverb “crouching tigers and hidden dragons” itself refers to the fact that you can never tell when someone or something will turn out to be highly dangerous and/or well-trained. Just watch any wuxia film and you’ll see that this is true. And that’s all I’ll say about that 😉

cute-fight.gif

 
// 6 //
WAS THERE A PARTICULAR SCENE THAT YOU REALLY ENJOYED WRITING?
Oh help. All of them? This novella was pure joy from beginning to end. Maybe I particularly loved the scene with the old lady at Wudang, and all of Iron Maiden and Clouded Sky’s duels in the first half. They had such fun interactions.
 
// 7 //
IF YOU COULD TIME TRAVEL – RIGHT NOW – TO ANY HISTORICAL TIME PERIOD, WHICH WOULD IT BE?
[A WORD OF WARNING – I HEAR JUNE 1348 IN ENGLAND IS A BAD YEAR TO PICK]
Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere in 1348. I even avoid fiction set during that time because I know it’s not going to end well, especially if it has ominous words like “domesday” in the title. No, I’d like to visit Jerusalem in 1183 to do research on my OUTREMER project. Saladin called it “a garden of paradise” and I would just love to see the amazing architecture and mosaics and fabulous clothes they all would have been getting around in.
THANKS FOR STOPPING BY, SUZANNAH!

profile

When Suzannah Rowntree isn’t travelling the world to help out friends in need, she lives in a big house in rural Australia with her awesome parents and siblings, writing historical fantasy fiction informed by a covenantal Christian perspective on history.
 
If you like the fiction of CS Lewis, GK Chesterton, Stephen Lawhead, or ND Wilson, you’ll probably enjoy her stories too.