This year I’m doing a new series on my blog: Fantasy Focus. Each month, I’m focusing on a different fantasy subgenre. Fantasy is such a broad genre with so many different things to offer. So far, there have been focuses on Comedic Fantasy, Romantic Fantasy, Grimdark, Epic/High Fantasy and Urban Fantasy.
I’m excited to have the opportunity to interview G.M. White, author of The Swordsman’s Lament and The Swordman’s Descent, which releases tomorrow (The preorder link is below).
Thank you for joining me to talk about your writing and about historical fantasy!
Thank you so much for having me!
First, will you tell the readers a little bit about yourself?
Yes, of course. I’m G.M. White, an indie fantasy author. I live on St Martin’s in the Isles of Scilly, a tiny island with a population of around 130 which is off the south west coast of the UK. Like many people on the islands I wear a few different hats. Now a full time stay at home dad, I also work several part time jobs, am on the local Coastguard rescue team, sit on the committee for St Martin’s Island Hall and Reading Room, play cricket (poorly) for St Martin’s Cricket Club, and somehow find time to write.
I’ve always loved stories, and storytelling, having been an avid reader from an early age. My mum and dad instilled a love of reading in me, perhaps because the only time I was quiet was when I had my head in a book!
I’ve been an actor, played drums in bands on and off for many years, and dabbled in playwriting, but it was only in 2015 that I started to work on writing fantasy fiction. The Swordsman’s Lament, my first novel, was published in 2019.
Will you talk a little about The Swordsman’s Lament series?
Happily! The series follows the character of Belasko, a war hero, legendary swordsman, and undefeated duelist. When we meet him in The Swordsman’s Lament, he’s the Royal Champion to the King of Villan. A post he’s held for fifteen years, the first commoner to do so. But a lifetime of pushing his body hard has started to have an effect, and it is beginning to let him down.
When tragedy strikes the royal household and a prince is murdered, Belasko discovers he is expendable. The grief-stricken king demands blood, and Belasko’s options are clear: find the real killer, or die for a crime he didn’t commit.
It’s a swashbuckling fantasy adventure, as Belasko fights to clear his name with help from unexpected sources. The Swordsman’s Lament is book one in the Royal Champion series. I published The Swordsman’s Intent in 2020. That is a prequel novella set fifteen years earlier and tells the tale of how Belasko became champion, the trials and training he underwent, and the friends and enemies he made along the way. It also introduces characters that appear in the other books in the series, as well as setting in motion the events of The Swordsman’s Lament.Book two, The Swordsman’s Descent, is out very soon and in that Belasko’s adventures continue as he and his companions find themselves thrown headlong into danger in a foreign city. I don’t want to give away too much, but when blades are drawn, and all seems lost, can Belasko save the lives of those he loves the most? You’ll have to read to find out… 😉
The Swordsman’s Lament is considered historical fantasy. How would you define that subgenre?
For me it means stories that are very much rooted in our own real-world history. Sometimes this can be in the form of alternate histories, fantasy set around real-world events, or alternate earths where magic is real. Or, like my series, a secondary world fantasy where magic isn’t a huge factor, but the setting is inspired by real world historical periods and locations. In my case, this is renaissance Europe.
What drew you to that particular time period?
That’s a good question. One of my earliest influences, before I got into fantasy, was things like The Three Musketeers, stories of King Arthur, Robin Hood, these kind of semi-historical tales, myths, and legends. When I was younger we lived in the North East of England, where there are a great many castles and ruins to explore. Something we often did on weekend family walks. My brother and I were always sword fighting with sticks and pretending to be knights and these heroes of legend. So when it came time to write my own fantasy series, it makes sense that an amalgamation of these things came out. The swashbuckling adventure of D’Artagnan, the legendary warriors of Arthur’s court, the common man fighting for what is right from Robin Hood.
When I was in secondary school I was obsessed with the historical basis of King Arthur and post-Roman early Medieval Britain for a while. Can you guess what my next project might be? Hint, hint… 😉
What first drew you to writing historical fantasy?
Funnily enough, it wasn’t that I necessarily set out to write a historical fantasy. It was the story that came to me and needed to be told, and as I worked on it it became apparent that it was a historical fantasy, rather than epic or high fantasy. Or even grimdark.
I have lots of different ideas (I sometimes wonder how I’ll find time to write them all), including an epic fantasy series with dragon riders, a historical Arthurian novel, a historical thriller/mystery series, a contemporary fantasy series… But Belasko was the character that took up residence in my head and refused to leave, and this was the setting that he fit into. I can’t really explain it more than that.
Does writing historical fantasy require a lot of research?
Yes and no. I try to have quite a light touch with my world building, dropping in small but significant details that help shape the reader’s view of the world without resorting to info dumps.
For me the first draft is for getting the story down, however roughly. As I believe Sir Terry Pratchett once said, the first draft is just you telling the story to yourself. So I tell that story, then dissect and reassemble it in the second draft. I may do some research here, but very often it’s more important in the third and final drafts when I’m doing a pass looking at world building and start hitting the research to get the detail right.
For example, I have spent many hours looking up details of renaissance/medieval clothing, or kitchens, architecture, weaponry… There are many research rabbit holes to disappear down!
What are some obstacles to writing in this subgenre?
I suppose it is in a way quite niche, which can make finding your readers difficult. But when you have them, they’re yours forever! Also, I think it’s possible to get bogged down in the historical aspect and lose the fantasy. Just because a setting is inspired by a historical time period doesn’t mean you have to take every aspect of that into your story. I try to make sure that my fantasy worlds reflect something of my values and the world I’d like to live in, rather than adhering to strict historical accuracy. This may mean greater equality between the genders, featuring a broader spectrum of sexuality than was deemed acceptable in the historical time period etc.
I think it’s interesting that you write fantasy that reflects your values a little bit. Do you see fantasy writing as a way to unpack or “work through” real life concerns, questions, or emotions?
Absolutely. I see fantasy and science fiction as ways of viewing life through a different lens. A safe space in which to examine difficult ideas. I always hold up Terry Pratchett as an example. People that haven’t read his work may dismiss it as “funny fantasy.” While it is funny and most of it (particularly his Discworld books) is fantasy, it’s also excoriating social satire.
I often have a theme I’m thinking about when I work on something. In the upcoming The Swordsman’s Descent that is that we’re stronger together than we are apart. This was partially in reaction to the first book, where Belasko is cast out and has to take it upon himself to save the day. Whereas the second book is about people coming together to try and make the world a better place, while a few selfish groups try to derail that progress for their own ends. And it was written against the backdrop of a global pandemic where it really was important that people act in the common good.
With The Swordsman’s Lament I didn’t particularly have a theme in mind, but just set out to tell a story. What emerged was a tale of people who are willing to almost any lengths to do what they see as the right thing. One of those is the hero, Belasko, and one is the villain of the piece. Who, of course, doesn’t see themselves as the villain. And it was written while the UK was tearing itself apart over Brexit and feeling more divided than at any time I can remember in my lifetime, with people acting at cross purposes while being entirely convinced that they were completely right and the other side was completely wrong.
Of course, they’re fun adventure stories and someone may read them and not be aware of all this. But those issues and questions are in there.
What are some of its strengths?
I think that grounding in at least some level of real-world detail can give historical fantasy a very realistic feel. It’s also a great opportunity to ask “what if” questions. What if the Napoleonic wars, but with dragons? As in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series. Or, what if our world’s geography had developed differently, and never known the Roman empire, but with magic? As in Miles Cameron’s Masters and Mages series.
How do you get in “the writing zone”, so to speak?
My writing time is pretty limited, so I have to make the most of it. Plotting helps, as it means when I sit down to write I know what I’m working on next. If I really need to focus and block out other distractions I’ll listen to ambient music, and I’ve recently started using brain.fm to help me focus.
Mostly, I just grab that free time and get my butt in the chair!
Who are some of your go-to authors?
Ooh, good question. I love Tad Williams, his classic Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series is what got me into fantasy back in the early 90s. So anything he writes is an automatic purchase for me! I feel the same way about RJ Barker, who is doing astonishing things in the fantasy genre at the moment. (If you haven’t read his Tide Child trilogy yet you really must.) Other authors that are old favourites are Robin Hobb, David Gemmell, Terry Pratchett… Newer authors (at least to me) that I’m enjoying include Ed McDonald, Miles Cameron, Jen Williams, Mark Stay… It always seems like there’s so many books and so little time!
About the author:
G.M. White is an indie fantasy author. He lives on St Martin’s, in the Isles of Scilly, with his wife and son. Like many people on the islands he wears a few different hats. Now a full time stay at home dad, he also works several part time jobs, is on the local Coastguard rescue team, sits on the committee for St Martin’s Island Hall and Reading Room, plays cricket (poorly) for St Martin’s Cricket Club, and somehow finds time to write.