The D&D Connection: Authors and TTRPGs- What You May Have Missed

I was joined by several excellent authors, to talk about any possible connections between great fantasy writing and table top roleplaying games. I’ve gathered the posts here, so you can easily find any that you may have missed.

The D&D Connection: Authors and TTRPGs

The D&D Connection: Authors and TTRPGs-Zack Argyle

The D&D Connection: Authors and TTRPGs-Geoff Habiger

The D&D Connection: Authors and TTRPGs- Dorian Hart

The D&D Connection: Authors and TTRPGs- Rowena Andrews and Jonathan Nevair

The D&D Connection: Authors and TTRPGs- Dan Fitzgerald

The D&D Connection: Authors and TTRPGs- Thomas Howard Riley

The D&D Connection: Authors and TTRPGs- Jeffrey Speight

The D&D Connection: Authors and TTRPGs- Ricardo Victoria

The D&D Connection: Authors and TTRPGs- Rob Edwards

TTRPGs that are Based on Books

The D&D Connection: Authors and TTRPGs- Ricardo Victoria

I’ve been talking about table-top roleplaying games with authors over the last few days. Today I’m joined by Ricardo Victoria, author of the Tempest Blades series.

Thank you for being willing to talk about D&D with me!

First, will you tell me a bit about The Tempest Blades series?

The Tempest Blades series is a story in progress (2 books published, 2-3 more to go, plus a few short stories) about this legendary hero Fionn, who after his final battle during the Great War found himself awakening 100 years later and  after a few years of adjustment is asked to return to the role of hero to stop an evil from his past. In the way, he is joined by a new band of heroes: Gaby, Alex, Sam (who is Fionn’s great granddaughter and adoptive daughter), Fionn’s best friend Harland and Sid the Samoharo (later joined by Kasumi the demonhunter, Joshua, a mysterious man and Yokoyawa, Sid’s cousin). And Fionn finds himself in the role of mentor to this new band, preparing them for the challenges that they will face from now on. Every action has a consequence both in the large scale of the world they live in, and in a personal level, which is reflected in the second book with the fallout of the first adventure and the toll in the mental health of Alex. All towards saving the world from looming menaces from beyond the physical realm.

Bottom line, Tempest Blades is a story about getting a second opportunity, finding redemption and your place in the world amidst action packed adventures that actually read like a ttrpg campaing! I have to note that I’m writing each book as self-contained, even if they are in the same continuity, so readers get a whole story in each book along a larger arc. Again, kinda like a ttrpg campaign, composed of smaller adventures all linked together.

Now that I think of… basically I’m writing my ideal ttrpg with me playing all the roles and the DM.

How about your history with ttrps? When did you first start playing and what drew you to it?

I always wanted to play since I saw the D&D cartoon as a kid, but never had the access to the books or with whom to play until I got to college. There I got my copies of the three core books of D&D 3e. and a few of a system called BESM (Big Eyes, Small Mouths, which is basically a system to play anime style adventures). Then my best friend, who already had his D&D group at the time, started to run a game at college with his classmates and I sorta, kinda ‘forced’ my way to join the group at their second adventure. And we kept playing for the next three years. Sometimes to give him a rest as DM I ran games in Stars Wars D20, or BESM, or another player ran his homebrew Saint Seiya game. We also played D20 modern, where our DM adapted the first Resident Evil game. It was awesome.

Then when I moved to UK for my Ph.D. I joined the Roleplay and Wargames Society, as a way to practice my English in an informal setting and to meet friends (and this incidentally got me to know the guys with whom we created Inklings Press, but that’s another story). There I played D&D, Exhalted and Bureau 13, and ran a few sessions of an improvised BESM game.

I haven’t played since I came back to Mexico since a) my best friend passed away, so his group simply disbanded and b) the downside of being an adult with responsibilities is that finding the time and someone play with. But I’m trying to create a new group with a  friend and his nephew and in the meantime I get my fix for ttrpg listening to a couple of live roleplay podcasts: The Dark Dice and Dumbgeons & Dragons, while I plan how to develop a ttrpg (or at least the setting for an established system) based on Tempest Blades.

Does your gaming experience have an effect on your writing?

I have come to realize that both follow the same kind of structured improvisation. I might have an overall plot I want to follow with a given story I’m working on, but how I go from the start to the end (and to the key scenes I have I mind) tends to be somewhat improvisational, just like in a game. The advantage of having a good grasp of who my characters are and how they tend to act allows me to improvise on the way to a key scene. Like the relationship between players and DM. Of course in this case my players are still me so there is nothing 100% unexpected about how things happen. Also I tend to world build my stories the same way I do for my games, creating the world as I’m needing it. And of course there is the fact that Fionn evolved from my first D&D character. On a more personal note, after my best friend suddenly passed away a few years ago, and with permission of the other players from the college group, I incorporated a few of his locations and characters into the world of Tempest Blades as a way to remember him and a homage. Fionn’s character arc was in part inspired by the plans we both had at the time of his passing to restart the campaign as I was ‘promoted’ to co-DM and was helping him with the world building and the plot of the campaign. Also Alex’s constant mentions in The Cursed Titans to a deceased friend are references to that personal event, because that’s the kind of things that remain with you, years after.

That absolutely stays with a person and I think it is a wonderful, very personal way to pay homage to your friend.

What would you say is your favorite thing about ttrpgs?

I love that for a couple of hours, you can be another person, with a different history and in a different world, able to have the adventures you won’t ever have in real life, just with the help of a set of dice, some pencils and paper and through the sheer power of imagination. For a moment you can be the hero (or the villain if you want), leave behind all the worries and weights on our shoulders and be as free as you imagined you would be when a kid. For me, that and the friendships you make through the game are what makes them truly special.

Yes, I agree that the camaraderie really is something special. And, as a reader, it’s already pretty obvious that I’m a big fan of escapism! 

What would you say to someone who has never played a ttrpg , but is curious about it?

The best way to learn about them is playing them. That said, nowadays ttrpg is not the niche hobby it was 20 years ago when I was in college, it has even been showcased in some tv shows like in Community (which I believe is the most “accurate” depiction so far). It has become more accessible and there are more resources to learn about them: facebook groups, your local hobby store, youtube videos, podcasts. Personally, if you are still curious about them but don’t want to commit to play just yet, you can listen to actual play podcasts of which I confess I’m a big fan and there are several good ones. My personal favorites by far are The Dark Dice (which is a D&D horror themed game that includes in its second season Jeff Goldblum. Yes, that Jeff), and Dumbgeons & Dragons, (a more traditional story of adventure but the chemistry between players is off the chart and their comments are hilarious. It’s my go to show to listen when I’m feeling down and it always manages me to cheer me up). Or if you are more visually inclined, check some of the gaming sessions by Critical Role or Acquisitions Incorporated (from the guys of Penny Arcade, which also from time to time featured Wil Wheaton) in YouTube. Many games as well offer free or really cheap starter kits on their website or Amazon, like the D&D starter set, so you can get a sense of how it works. 

Word of advice though: don’t believe that D&D is the beginning and the end of the hobby. There are tons of companies, games, settings to choose from: L5R for samurais/ninja, BESM/Anime 5e for anime inspired games, the White Wolf books for your supernatural or mythological inclined. Bureau 13 for those more into the X-Files/Supernatural kind of Stories. Basic Fantasy for a really simple game to play. Call of Cthulhu for classic cosmic horror or Cthulhutech for SF cosmic horror. There are as many settings as fiction subgenres there are, and within them, different settings to play with and within different price ranges for your needs.

But really, the only things you need to play are pencil, paper, a set of dice, friends and above all, a lot of imagination. No need for expensive hardware or software, just what your mind can create.

About the Author:

Ricardo Victoria is the author of The Tempest Blades fantasy series. You can find both The Withered King and The Cursed Titans (books one and two) now.

To purchase The Withered King:

Amazon

To purchase The Cursed Titans:

Amazon

The D&D Connection: Authors and TTRPGs- Jeffrey Speight

Continuing on with my series on great fantasy authors and table-top roleplaying games, I’m excited to be able to talk with Jeffrey Speight, author of the excellent Paladin Unbound. Thanks for taking the time to chat D&D!

Will you talk a little bit about your recently released fantasy book, Paladin Unbound?

I’d be happy to. Paladin Unbound is a fast-paced high fantasy adventure that follows a half-Orc mercenary, Umhra the Peacebreaker, as he uncovers an insidious plot to bring the natural order of Evelium to its knees. In the process, he suffers tremendous loss as a result of his own reluctance to show his true nature and risks his own life in coming forth about his secret to guarantee he never makes such a mistake again. It’s a tale of self-discovery, honor, and lots of action.   

How about your history with ttrpgs? Have you been playing for long?

I started playing D&D when I was in middle school in the late 80s. My first character was an elf ranger named Sage. I played rangers a lot growing up. Somewhere along the way, I shifted to preferring paladins. I’m a lawful good alignment, myself, so I think there’s a natural connection there. Several years ago, I started playing again to introduce my three sons to the game and get them off screens. Ugh. It got the creative bug going and led me to homebrewing Tyveriel (the planet where Evelium sits) and, eventually writing the book.

One of the things that I really loved about Paladin Unbound is that it has a bit of a classic D&D feel to it. Is any part of the book inspired by gaming at all?

Absolutely. As I said, the worldbuilding and some of the early character development came directly from a homebrewed D&D campaign for my kids. I way overbuilt for what they needed to learn the game and decided to keep going and really flesh it all out. I took a lot of what I had made for the campaign, elevated the worldbuilding and the characters and started writing Paladin Unbound. The book is very much a love letter to D&D. 

I’ve noticed that many great fantasy authors play D&D. Do you think there is a connection between gaming and writing?

Without a doubt. I think there is a natural connection between the world building, character creation, and fantasy backdrop of D&D and other TTRPGs and the writing process. For many, it’s a direct connection as was the case for Paladin Unbound. For others it’s looser. But let’s face it, if you are spending your time creating a conflicted Dwarvish Sorcerer with a rich backstory, you’re well on your way to writing a fantasy book.

What are some similarities and differences? 

I think the similarities are pretty straight forward. Creating a fantasy world with engaging characters and a storyline are critical to both. Where they diverge is in the craft of actually writing a book. It’s very different than designing, running, or playing a campaign. You can’t go off on silly side quests that don’t further the plot of the story (I totally endorse silly side quests that do further the plot of the story), you are seeing things from only one perspective per scene, you can provide the readers more context than the characters themselves are aware of, etc. 

Does gaming help with writing creativity or vice versa?

For me, it flows both ways. It’s like working out (I’m not an expert in the field) in that if you flex a muscle, it grows stronger over time. Creating a world and characters and stories, whether it is for D&D or writing, will make you better at doing those things in both venues. The more we create, the better we get at creating. A virtuous cycle.

What do you love about gaming?

Oh man, where do I start. I love sitting around the table with a group and experience a story built cooperatively. I love the unexpected twists and turns a game can take due to a single decision or roll of the dice. I love how real it can feel when you are in the middle of a great session. And dice…I love dice.

Yes, the surprise twists are the best! I always smile a little when I find out later that a campaign that someone was running went in a completely unexpected direction and the DM spent the last little bit pulling things out of thin air. With the best DMs, I can’t even tell. As for dice: a certain first-time paladin needed new dice. Absolutely needed them. Nowadays, do you DM more often, or are you a player?

I was so excited to hear you were going to play a paladin. You’ll be smiting evil in no time. As most of my D&D time is spent with my kids, I often find myself the DM. They will walk in the room and ask, Dad, can we play D&D? I’ll say sure. Then they’ll tell me about the new characters they built and that they want to have the campaign based in a flying city run by an evil wizard. They just expect me to have that ready to go. I’d definitely like to join up with a crew for some adult game time, though. Maybe as a player…

What first drew you to writing? 

The escape. I took up writing as a hobby and found that I really enjoyed and benefitted mentally from my time in Evelium. It’s relaxing to leave things behind for a moment and immerse yourself in another world. I had no intention of publishing a book. That came much later once the story was finished and a friend encouraged me to explore publication.

Is there a particular gaming memory that always makes you laugh or smile?

Every Halloween I do a one shot for my wife and kids. It’s usually a short, creepy storyline that involves us as the characters. We’ve built a lot of great memories around those sessions that I will always cherish. Then, there was the time my oldest son thought he could make friends with an orc guard. The party was hiding in the bushes and saw the orc guarding a keep we knew was hostile. He insisted on trying to persuade the orc to let us pass. I asked if he was sure and he said yes. He stood up and waved hello. He took a pretty bad hit from a javelin. We still laugh about that one.

That’s hilarious! Memories like that are the best. I remember the first time my husband and I gamed with my oldest. His wizard accidentally lit the tree my rogue was hiding in on fire. Surprisingly, that gets brought up a lot. Are the majority of your games homebrewed?

Yes. I’ve run a few modules for my kids. They are usually fun, but I actually prefer having more control over the world and the campaign plot. If I’m going to DM, I’d much rather build it all from the ground up.

What would you say to someone who hasn’t played before but is curious about it?

I think a lot of people don’t play TTRPGs because they seem so complicated. I’d say to go into it with an open mind, be willing to learn, and just have fun. A good DM and experienced players will help you out along the way. If you want to DM yourself, I wouldn’t get so wrapped up in all the rules. They are a guideline. Set the expectations accordingly for your table that you aren’t going strictly by the book and just go for it. You’ll have a blast and so will your friends/family. Oh. And be a Paladin…there aren’t enough of us.

About the Author:

Jeffrey Speight’s love of fantasy goes back to an early childhood viewing of the cartoon version of The Hobbit, when he first met an unsuspecting halfling that would change Middle Earth forever. Finding his own adventuring party in middle school, Jeff became an avid Dungeons & Dragons player and found a passion for worldbuilding and character creation. While he went on to a successful career as an investor, stories grew in his mind until he could no longer keep them inside. So began his passion for writing. Today, he lives in Connecticut with his wife, three boys (his current adventuring party), three dogs, and a bearded dragon. He has a firmly held belief that elves are cool, but half-orcs are cooler. While he once preferred rangers, he nearly always plays a paladin at the gaming table.

Website: https://www.jeffreyspeight.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/jeffspeight

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jeffsp8/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jeffreyspeightauthor

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/21486809.Jeffrey_Speight

Where to find Paladin Unbound:

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/58022890-paladin-unbound

Literary Wanderlust: https://www.literarywanderlust.com/product-page/paladin-unbound

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1942856768

Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/paladin-unbound-jeffrey-speight/1139410896

The D&D Connection: Authors and TTRPGs- Thomas Howard Riley

I’ve been exploring the connection between table top roleplaying games and great authors all week. Today I’m excited to chat a little with Thomas Howard Riley, author of We Break Immortals.

Thanks for talking with me!

Will you tell me a little bit about your book?

Of course, and thank you for having me on your site to chat. 

My upcoming book is titled WE BREAK IMMORTALS.

It is full of swordplay, terrifying magick duels, mysteries, sex, riddles, kings, prophecies, battles, quests, murderers, and, of course, superhuman serial killer cult leaders. It explores themes of obsession, longing, self-reflection, vengeance, corruption, terror, loss, the bonds of friendship, the feeling of being outcast, and how even people who have no family of their own are able to find one among the people they meet.

It is an epic fantasy adventure, but one that threads the needle between what is usually considered High Fantasy and Grimdark Fantasy, what I prefer to call Rated-R Epic Fantasy. It is an adult fantasy, which does include things like graphic violence, sex, and drug use. 

It is an expansive world, where people who are able to use magick are hated and feared, hunted and burned. Unless they are one of the select few who can buy or bargain their way into celebrity…or…the become powerful enough that no one can stop them. 

My world has an expansive magic-system, however, the thing that defines this world is the magick-undoing system. The methods of stopping magick and those who use it is as in-depth and rule-based as the magick itself. More so even. To keep magick-users in check, and hunt them down when they go rogue, kingdoms employ Render Tracers, professionals who have accumulated secrets and loopholes that can stop magick and track those who use it.

The story includes multiple points of view, each character quite different from one another. It took a lot to juggle so many large personalities.

How about your history with ttrpgs? When did you first start playing, and what drew you to it?

I was drawn to it originally by two things. Firstly, most of my earliest reading was fantasy (and also sci fi, but mostly fantasy). I read every Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms novel written through at least 1995. And the local hobby store sold gaming modules for these series, including ones specific to the very books I had been reading. I still have some of them. It allowed me to insert myself into the stories that I loved to read, and to affect the outcome. It was awesome. 

Secondly, it was a way to play knights and soldiers and wizards with your friends, but with rules to back it up. So there would be no more of the “you can’t beat my guy because he has more powers”, or “your knight didn’t kill my archer because he’s too fast,” etc. that always happened when we were little kids. 

RPGs provided a structure, so that we would know for sure whether the knight beat the archer, or the wizard’s powers were enough to stop whatever-it-was. It made everything fair. We did not have to argue; the dice decided. It was up to us to know our characters so that we could make the right choices of how to target those dice, to maximize our chances of success. It was like playing toy soldiers and craps at the same time. It felt badass. 

Eventually I played virtually everything that was around at the time: D&D of every variety, Warhammer 40k, Battletech, Space Fleet, Blood Bowl, etc.

I love that books were your gateway into gaming, so to speak! Did ttrps influence your desire to write at all?

I definitely feel its influence there. Being part of a ttrpg (back then we just called them rpgs because there was no option other than tabletop at that time) was like training wheels for storytelling. I not only had the opportunity to watch the GM weave a tale together while accommodating 10+ people with their own motives, but as a player-character I was able to participate in that storytelling, sometimes creating epic character arcs worthy of their own books. And when I did decide to pursue writing books, I was able to come to it with that experience. So it not only inspired me to storytelling, it also taught me some useful tools for it.

One of the key things I feel playing RPGs cultivated within me was the ability to wrangle multiple characters with different plans, hopes, motivations, and decisions. Seeing that different players did not always get along when on the same quests, or would get annoyed with each other, or would go on to betray each other, really helped guide me when creating my own characters, so that I pay great attention to make sure they are each their own person, with their own dreams, and their own way of doing things, and that their goals may not always align with one another. 

I also am forever blessed/cursed with a love of crews, teams, clans, squads. I do write characters by themselves if the scene absolutely demands it, but I much prefer when characters bounce dialogue and actions off one another in a group. Even though I write multiple POVs in my own books, I tend to give each individual POV their own crew to belong to.

The best RPG I was ever a part of was run by, and in a world created by, a very good old sword-fighting friend of mine. (I used to sword-fight as well by the way. And no, I do NOT mean fencing. This was a very different thing). His name is Richard Marsden, who is incidentally also the founder of the Phoenix Society of Historical Swordsmanship, a HEMA organization that teaches sword-fighting techniques for heavy rapiers, sabers, and longswords (and who writes his own SF books actually – you can check out his humorous Traveling Tyrant SF series, or his acclaimed swordsmanship books Historical European Martial Arts In Context or The Polish Saber). 

This was the longest running individual adventure I ever participated in, lasting well over a year, played on hazy afternoons in a smoke-filled alcohol-fueled garage. And from it I gained two things that jump out at me right away, one general and one very specific.

The general thing, was I learned that not everything ended neatly, and that emotions would rear their head, that things would get messy, and that adventures sometimes ended in tragedy. I learned there was a balance of humor and seriousness, of triumph and tragedy, that was real, and if I could walk that line, my story could be incredible.

This was a funny bunch of people, myself included (I have been told that I am, as they say, a real card). And we laughed a lot. But we were also serious. This game saw some of us start wars, or preside over atrocities, caused the downfall of thriving civilizations, ruined environments, and burned down religions. This game included player-characters betraying one another, and at some points even killing each other (literally taking them out of the game permanently). It included a player-character suicide in-game. This was not a G-rated dalliance. It was both heavy and light. But when it was heavy, it was very heavy.

The specific thing is one particular set battle, a siege really, of a vast city that our characters needed to get inside to stop something that powerful priests were doing. It included player-character in-fighting, murder, ingenuity, betrayal, and redemption. And the way I have plotted my own series, Advent Lumina, I have set it up so that particular part of our rpg, played decades ago around a card table in an empty two-car garage, will one day be immortalized in my books (obviously modified to fit within my own story framework, world, and characters, but you get the idea).

That feels like a lot more than you asked for. But I have never been known for my brevity.

In short, participating in rpgs gave me both inspiration and preparation for writing the kind of stories I wanted to write.

I think brevity is overrated. I love that you mention the love of teams/ squads. I myself prefer books with multiple characters that play off each other as I think it allows for a more natural way for characters to develop. But that’s just my personal preference.

I’m seeing some similarities between DMing and writing. What are some differences?

The key difference is control. Running a game as DM calls for a certain amount of control (one has to wrangle recalcitrant players generally down the path you have prepared for them after all) But the control ends where the players begin. They can make their own choices, and affect the story in their own ways. All you can hope to do is loosely shove them along in the right direction. This is part of the fun, seeing which way things will go, and what unexpected reactions will pop up as you go. 

When writing, you have total control. You are the DM and the players. You are responsible for every aspect of the story. This is at once amazing and nerve-wracking. You have sole control, but also sole responsibility if anything goes wrong, if the story doesn’t not work right, if the characters don’t mesh, and so on.

That does not mean that you cannot still be surprised by your own story. No matter how much I plan out ahead, new themes and ideas and character motives and epiphanies may leap out of the background and make the story better. But even this surprise comes from the writer’s subconscious. There is no outside input, just your own ideas bouncing around in your head.

Another difference is the kind of pressure on you. A DM must wrangle the players along the story, but must also keep them entertained, making sure they want to come back again and again. It is difficult to keep someone’s attention for weeks or months on end. That requires a certain skill. You have to be interactive, fun, accommodating, and you have to think hard on the spot, under pressure. If one of the players (or all of the players if they are just plain rude) takes the party off the carefully manicured path you have set out for them, you have to be able to think quick on your feet to come up with ways to still somehow bring them back to that path. That is a somewhat different skill set than a writer. And also the degree of perfection is a bit different. Writing a finished product requires a lot of professional polish. Being a DM is inherently a bit more relaxed, as you are usually just playing with your friends.  

Writing (mostly) takes place in private. You may find your characters wandering in your mind away from where you wan them to go. But you have time, alone, to come up with solutions. You are not the deer in headlights that a surprised DM would be. (I have seen some DMs sweat for a while, desperately trying to think of a way to get things back on track without looking like they ever went off the track in the first place.) 

It is different for a writer. For a very long time you have no one to impress but yourself. The finished product is what matters, meaning you can write the story backwards from the end, or a bit from the beginning, middle, and end. You can jump around, and skip over parts that aren’t clicking and work on others, and come back to it later, without the pressure to make sure each piece is chronologically perfect before moving on to the next. There is much more pressure to make it perfect, but writers have the benefit of being able to draft, revise, and polish their story in total before anyone really sees it. A DM only has to work on creating one piece at a time as they are played, though they must make sure each piece is ready for play on a deadline. 

It seems that more and more authors (and creatives in general) are playing or mentioning D&D. Do you think that it’s rising in popularity for any particular reason, or do you think it’s always been enjoyed, but not necessarily mentioned?

I think it has always been enjoyed. I think the stigma around it has changed. Much like comic books were looked down upon as a geek culture for much of the 70s, 80s, and 90s by the grownups and cool kids, D&D and fantasy in general was sneered at.

But then one day everyone who had spent their whole lives reading and playing got older and said, “You know what? This is fun and we like it and we don’t have to conform to anyone else’s version of cool or grown up. We have that money to spend, and we set the rules of what we want to do. And anyone who doesn’t like it? Well, bye.” 

And the bigger that collective group became that was seen publicly approving of it, the more people found courage and feel comfortable talking about it in turn, and now here we are. (This is true of human nature in regard societal change in general)

Now comics and D&D and fantasy and sci-fi are mainstream. The most popular video games are D&D based. There are tournaments where real money is made. Kids now would never know it was ever something that used to be ridiculed. 

How can you ridicule Final Fantasy? Or World of Warcraft? Or League of Legends? Or Marvel movies? Or the Walking Dead comics? That stuff is popular. You may not like one or another as a personal preference, but gone are the days when that subject matter could just be dismissed out of hand as geeky childhood dalliance. That stuff is mainstream now. It’s cool. And I’m glad for that. 

What would you say to someone who hasn’t played before but is curious about it?

I would say go for it. Definitely. It’s a fun thing to do with like minded people. It’s like having a poker night only better because you can let your creativity shine. (And you are less likely to lose a lot of money) 
But I would say make sure to go in with people you are comfortable with. Whether you go in for serious or silly or a little of both, it is best if you do it with people who you know will have a good time hanging out as well as gaming. 

About the author:

Thomas Howard Riley currently resides in a secluded grotto in the wasteland metropolis, where he reads ancient books, plays ancient games, watches ancient movies, jams on ancient guitars, and writes furiously day and night. He sometimes appears on clear nights when the moon is gibbous, and he has often been seen in the presence of cats. 

He always wanted to make up his own worlds, tell his own stories, invent his own people, honor the truths of life, and explore both the light and the darkness of human nature. With a few swords thrown in for good measure. 

And some magick. Awesome magick. 

He can be found digitally at THOMASHOWARDRILEY.COM 

On Twitter he is @ornithopteryx, where he is sometimes funny, always clever, and never mean.

https://amzn.to/3hVPA3J Amazon US link

https://amzn.to/2UYvhtT Amazon UK link

https://bit.ly/3zU8qyq    Goodreads link

http://thomashowardriley.com  Author Website

The D&D Connection: Authors and TTRPGs- Dan Fitzgerald

Today Dan Fitzgerald, author of The Maer Cycle, is sharing his thoughts on D&D. Incidentally, he just released The Maer Cycle Omnibus, which I definitely recommend picking up.


Like many fantasy writers, I got my start playing D&D. When I was just a wee pre-teen, D&D was pretty much my life. Sure, I did other things—went to school, ate food, watched TV, what have you, but the thing I always looked forward to for days at a time and obsessed about afterward, the thing I could do for hours on end with no care for food or sleep, was play D&D. I would even stay up late some nights when I couldn’t play with others, rolling up random characters and taking them through randomly generated dungeons until they died. Ah, good times!

This was the early 80s, so we’re talking 1st edition AD&D, where a first level mage had max 4 hit points and only one spell, and if they somehow made it to level 2 they got another 1-4 HP and another spell. Surviving to level 3 was a miracle, and staying alive long enough to actually cast a fireball was damned near impossible. It was a blast.

Fast forward to today’s D&D 5E (that’s 5th edition for you less nerdy types), where mages are more powerful at 1st level than they used to be at level 3, where characters miraculously heal overnight from the most grievous wounds, where you can be unconscious and on death’s door one moment, then hacking and slashing a few seconds after a simple healing spell. This is not a diss on 5E (okay, well actually it is, but the original had its flaws too); it’s just a different way of playing, and of thinking about the game, and I think we may have lost something in the process. The old game was more nitty-gritty, more deadly, and to me, a lot more fun.

My gaming pals back in the day liked to power up and play high-level characters and fight everything in the Monster Manual (and later the Fiend Folio, the Holy Grail of D&D books), and I was happy enough to play along, but I always enjoyed the tough, early starts, the 1st level characters with nothing more than their wits and a longsword, and maybe a Magic Missile or Cure Light Wounds once a day, to protect them. When a handful of orcs or a gaggle of goblins was enough to make you think twice, and if you killed an ogre, you felt like a superhero. Nowadays a new character already feels like a superhero, and I miss that feeling of vulnerability.

What I don’t miss? The idea that each race had certain characteristics inherent to it, and limitations on what characters could or couldn’t become. The notion that orcs, goblins, ogres, and many other humanoid races were automatically evil. The gender binary. The heteronormativity. Whatever I may not like about 5E, it states very clearly in the Player’s Handbook: “You don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender. Likewise, your character’s sexual orientation is for you to decide.” That’s honestly refreshing, as is the lifting of limitations on what races can play what classes. I may not like some of the rules updates, but the overall tone is better, which matters quite a bit.

But I digress. Or rather, I don’t. Because what I love about D&D, at its essence, is the idea that you can pretend to be anyone you want, and you get to participate in a live story that’s never existed before. It’s all about a group of people sitting around a table (or in recent times, a Zoom and Roll20 screen) telling stories together. Sure, there are rules to guide you, and they can help streamline play, but they can also limit the role of your imagination. Honestly, if you’re not homebrewing your rules at least a little, are you even playing D&D? My favorite games are ones in which you can always deviate from the rules or make an exception when it makes for a better story.

It’s the same way with fantasy. There are “rules” to follow if you want to be traditionally published, but aren’t the best stories the ones that break those rules in innovative ways? And with the flourishing of small presses and independent publishing in contemporary fantasy, there really are no rules to speak of, only stories, writers, and readers. I can write whatever the hell I want, and someone is going to read it, but let’s be honest: as a writer, I don’t want just someone to read my books. I want a LOT of someones to read my books. I want to tell my stories to whoever will listen, and I always hope to convince someone who might not have read fantasy before to try my books.

In my Maer Cycle trilogy, I tried to write books that would appeal to fans of classic fantasy, to D&D players and nerds of various stripes, and would have that feel of the low-level characters gritting it out against well-matched opponents, with a lot more role-playing than fighting. And as their skills advance through the trilogy, I wanted it to feel earned. I also hoped to write something that felt grounded enough that it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for readers who don’t usually read fantasy—there’s not a lot of big, showy magic, and the fantasy creatures are (mostly) meant to feel almost plausible.

Now that the trilogy is out in the world, I’ve got something totally different in the works, the Weirdwater Confluence duology, which I’m calling sword-free fantasy. It’s quite a bit more removed from D&D, but if I’m totally honest, one aspect of The Living Waters was inspired a little by a particular creature from the D&D universe. I won’t say which one, but old-school nerds may recognize something a bit familiar in the name of the duology.

However far I may roam, the bones of my writer’s soul remain grounded in the world of the imagination opened up by Dungeons and Dragons, which has influenced my storytelling as much as any book I’ve ever read.

You can read more about me or my books on my website, http://www.danfitzwrites.com, and my books can be purchased from the usual online vendors, which my publisher, Shadow Spark, has available on one easy page. I can also be found on Twitter, where I talk about fantasy, books, and general nerdery, and on Instagram, where I post way too many nature pics and the occasional bookish snippet or announcement.


You can find The Maer Cycle Omnibus on Amazon

The D&D Connection: Authors and TTRPGs- Dorian Hart

This week on Witty and Sarcastic Bookclub, I’m talking about authors and the love of ttrpgs. I’m fortunate to have several great guests throughout the week. Today I have the privilege to talk with Dorian Hart, author of one of my favorite fantasy series.

Thanks for being willing to chat with me about D&D and great fantasy. First of all, would you tell me a little bit about the Heroes of Spira series?

The Heroes of Spira is Hopeful Ensemble Epic Quest Fantasy, a subgenre I probably just made up but which describes the series pretty well.

Hopeful, because there’s a core of decency, humor, and optimism running through all the books, even when things seem bleak and perilous. My characters are flawed, but you’ll cheer for them the whole way.  Ensemble, because it features a group of would-be heroes that mostly stays together, working as a team, across all five books. Epic, because the stakes are high, and the scope becomes quite wide by the end. Quest, because the aforementioned heroes are usually on some quest or other, many of them involving strange and wondrous locales, while helping save the world. And fantasy, because it has swords and wizards and talking gemstones and giant monsters and mysterious artifacts and magical towers and dire prophecies and dream-warriors and evil math-priests and a side-trip to hell and, eventually, a nine-foot-tall oracular toad.  Also some other stuff, but that should give you a general idea.

The finished series will be five books. I’ve published four of them already, and am about halfway through the first draft of the fifth. The first four, should anyone be interested are: The Ventifact Colossus, The Crosser’s Maze, The Greatwood Portal, and The Infinite Tower

Regarding  Dungeons and Dragons:  When did you start playing? What first drew you to ttrpgs?

My D&D/TTRPG journey has been ongoing for 43 years now, and featured two specific days of special significance set 16 years apart.

The first was in 1978, when as a 9-year-old I visited a book fair at my elementary school. I was there to browse the fantasy and science fiction section, but nestled among the books was the original “blue box” Dungeons and Dragons basic set. I read the back and realized it was a game, not a book, where you pretended to be a fantasy hero. Cool! I bought it (hoping my parents wouldn’t mind that I used my book fair money for a game), took it home, and showed it to my friend John who lived across the street.  On that day, my love for fantasy TTRPGs (along with an unquenchable need for dice) was born. A year later, I convinced my parents to get me the PH and DMG hardbacks for Christmas, and that really cemented my D&D geekery in place.

Fast forward to 1994, when I was 25 years old. I hadn’t played much D&D in high school and college, lacking the time more than the interest, but on one fateful day some mutual friends introduced me to Kevin Kulp. Kevin is a brilliant game designer (his credits include TimeWatch and Swords of the Serpentine), a great friend, and, it turns out, a wonderfully talented GM. He invited me to play in his campaign, and watching his table technique inspired me to run a game of my own. My campaign, whose plots and characters inspired the Heroes of Spira series, lasted 15 years over about 300 sessions, and was one of the great experiences of my life. 

I love that the first moment you were introduced to D&D was so memorable! What’s doubly great about your two special moments is that one took place in your childhood and the other as an adult. I think it’s kind of sad that, as children, we are encouraged to use our imaginations, but adults are sort of expected to set those things aside. I think that’s one of my favorite things about gaming: the ability to keep using our imaginations. But I digress.

It is so cool that the Heroes of Spira was inspired by your campaign! Was it tough to gather such a long campaign into a cohesive narrative? Or was it easier because you had so much history to jump off from?


My journey from D&D campaign to novels was highly unusual and probably not generally reproducible.

When I was running the game, I’d write up a summary of events after every session to help myself maintain continuity and consistency, not to mention recall the names of random NPC’s I’d made up on the spot.  Eventually one of my players (the aforementioned Kevin Kulp) convinced me to post these summaries to ENWorld, a popular D&D message board that had a specific forum for “Story Hours” – basically campaign journals presented to the public. While at first my posts were extremely dry and not meant to be read as fiction per se, they inexplicably grew in popularity, and the more people were reading, the more I wanted to give them something entertaining to read.

As a result, over time, I started writing the campaign summaries more like they were chapters of an epic fantasy novel. With my players’ permission, I audio-recorded my sessions, so that I could play back the tape for more fidelity while I wrote up the summaries.  A few years in, I was essentially writing a serialized novel that was also an accurate account of the game!  It helped that my D&D style is very DM-story-driven, which I know is not for everyone, but my players bought into it wholeheartedly. I gave them a detailed, complex narrative, and they tacitly agreed to go where my adventure led them.

By the time I was done, Sagiro’s Story Hour (as it was called) had hundreds of regular readers, and I had written about 750,000 words of fantasy-novel-ish content.

So, in that sense, it was easy to go from games to books, but that coin had another side to it. Over the many years I posted my campaign’s story, lots of my readers urged me to turn the account into actual novels.  I resisted, time after time, for a number of reasons. For one, the story was loaded with WotC proprietary terms, monsters, etc. For another, D&D campaigns don’t naturally translate into books; their pacing is all wrong, and their focus is often on combats and stats and character sheets, while going light on characterization, dramatic arcs, foreshadowing, all that good stuff. For yet another, it sure sounded like a lot of work!

Over the years, though, I came around to the idea. I worked out how I could strip out all of the explicitly D&D-ish terminology. I outlined and took notes and figured out what needed to be dropped, changed, or moved around chronologically. I mapped out character arcs, and how the books would move the focus of everything onto the characters and their development.  I have spent a LOT of time figuring how to turn a TTRPG campaign into books so that they don’t *feel* merely like someone’s campaign notes written down.

It helped immensely that, as I said, I ran a very novel-like D&D campaign. In one case, I literally set up a moment that had been foreshadowed nine years earlier in real time, to the great astonishment (and joy, I hope) of my players. The game had emotional moments and lots of character development already baked in, because my players were all wonderful role-players who were just as invested in the game as I was.

And then, sometime in 2012 or 2013, I wrote the first words of the first draft of The Ventifact Colossus.

 Wow, that is incredibly cool! It definitely seems like a ton of effort (not that there’s necessarily an easy way to write a book) , but as someone who’s read the books, I think it really paid off. It reads like old-school fantasy to me, but not as a campaign, if that makes sense.

Do you have a favorite character class to play, or do you like to switch things around?

I like variety, though it’s a quirk of my adult D&D career that I’ve played very few characters. That’s because the campaigns I’ve been in have been extremely long. The first, in which I played an old, crotchety, high-wis-low-str cleric, lasted 17 years. Following that I played a low-wis kick-in-every-door fighter in a “short” game that lasted only a decade or so. But I love playing anything, really, as long as I’m with a group of friends and having a good time.

The time spent goofing around with friends and kind of telling a group story is something special, I think. Is there a particular gaming memory that really makes you smile or laugh?

There are more than I can count, so I’ll just pick one.

During my long campaign, one of the characters suffered from a strange and sporadic magical effect:  bits of a second world would sometimes manifest in his vicinity, overlapping with his own world.  So, he might be out in a street, and then a forest would appear around him, with trees and buildings and roads and people all kind of mingled together.

I had that happen while the party was in an inn; for a few minutes, a wild jungle overlapped the rooms and hallways.  Among the details of the jungle I provided was a monkey running loose in the corridors, and while I may lack any number of practical skills, I am a master of making realistic monkey noises.

Foolishly, I decided that when the jungle vanished and things returned to normal, the monkey would be left behind. A few extra minutes of silliness, I thought, before the adventure I had planned for the day would continue.

That’s not what happened. Instead, my players decided to spend THREE HOURS interacting with that monkey – chasing it around, feeding it, playing with it, teaching it tricks, involving it in some practical jokes, all obliging me to make myself hoarse from making monkey noises.

At the end of the session, one of my players asked me if that was how I intended the evening to go. I sighed, shook my papers at them all, and lamented “There’s no monkey in my notes!”  We still use that phrase on occasion to denote when things don’t go as planned.

Ok… one more, since I can’t resist, and DMs out there, this is one you can use! The party was confronted with a password-protected tower door, and had just slain the beholder that was guarding it. One of the clerics cast speak with dead to learn what they could, and naturally one of their questions was “What is the password to get into this tower?”  The dead beholder answered “I cannot remember the password.”

My players then spent about two hours trying to figure it out, becoming more and more frazzled and weary, until one of them had the lightbulb moment. Turns out, it was more of a pass phrase, and the phrase, of course, was “I cannot remember the password.”

My players literally threw bread rolls at me for that one.

I must admit, I would probably have reacted in the same way. Bread throwing seems like a perfectly reasonable response. I am awful at puzzling things out.

Switching gears a little bit, I’ve noticed that a lot of authors play D&D. Do you think there’s any correlation between writing and gaming? Does one strengthen the other?

While I haven’t done any scientific studies on the subject, I’d say it makes good sense that there would be such a correlation. After all, what is TTRPGaming if not storytelling by another means? I imagine that the type of person who wants to write stories will naturally search out other ways to be involved in storytelling, and D&D can be a very strong experience in that regard.

And I’m quite sure that gaming strengthens writing, because almost any consumption or creation of stories, in any medium or genre, will make one a better writer.

Good point! That makes perfect sense that they would sort of leapfrog off of each other. What would you say to someone who hasn’t played before but is curious about it?

The first thing I would say is “There’s no single correct way to play D&D. If everyone is having fun, you’re doing it right.” As a corollary, I would say “Try your best to play with people who you’d enjoy hanging out with if you were doing something else.” D&D is a social experience at its heart, and if you’re going to spend several hours hanging around with other folks being social, it’s better if you get along.

As for the game itself, I’d offer this additional advice: Try to make sure the DM and the players agree about what kind of experience they want, especially on the player-driven vs. DM-driven axis. Do you want the DM to craft a specific adventure for you? Or do you want a “sandbox” where the DM turns you loose to do whatever you want? Similarly, do you want a game where the players are Good and Righteous Heroes™ or ne’er-do-wells who scoff at the law and revel in violence? It can be off-putting for a new player if they go in expecting one thing and end up getting the opposite. D&D games work best when everyone’s expectations are understood.

That’s a good point regarding playing with people you like spending time with. I know every gaming group is different, but with the people that I’ve gamed with for years, we spend about half the time just joking around and half the time playing. Friendships forged in the heat of battle (or around a table rolling dice) are lasting friendships.

I agree that communicating expectations is important. I once created a homebrew campaign that I was very excited about and ended up being very discouraged when each player managed to make characters that would most definitely not work in that world. The fault was mine for not communicating and finding out what the players were looking for. That being said, I am much better at participating than I am at DM’ing. I have a knack for rolling low at the most hilarious of times.

Ha! In my gaming groups, we have two important rules. Rule 1 is: “Don’t give the DM ideas you’ll come to regret.” But Rule 2 — relevant to your last observation — is “Don’t gloat before you roll.” I’m personally (in)famous for uttering statements like “The only way I can miss this attack is if I roll below a 3!” Saying something like that increases my odds of failure by an order of magnitude, but I can’t stop myself..

Now I’m curious: do you prefer sandbox campaigns or specific crafted adventures?

As you might guess, I prefer the crafted adventure to the open sandbox — both as a player and as a DM. Not that there’s a single thing wrong with liking sandboxes! It’s an entirely subjective preference. But I’m partial to long-term plots, full of foreshadowing and recurring villains and a sense that there’s a deep, underlying narrative to everything. Those are easier to create in a less sandbox-y environment, I think.

Also, as a DM, my weakest “stat” — monkey noises aside — is improvisation. I spent way more time prepping my sessions than was probably healthy, and counted heavily on my players buying into my vision of the game’s story. Again, I know that’s not for everyone, and there are players out there who would become very frustrated with my style. But where a sandbox asks players “What problems would you like to solve?” I skip to “Here is a problem to solve. How would you like to solve it?”

One of the things I’ve loved about the Heroes of Spira series is the foreshadowing. There were a few times that left me floored at how things had been set up.

That was a huge advantage of having the entire five-book series (mostly) outlined before I started the first book. I’m writing the final book now, and it feels like the whole thing is scene after scene of paying off arcs started in earlier books.

[Minor spoiler example: One character has a habit, first seen in the third chapter of the first book, of writing his name on little pieces of paper, putting them in vials, and tossing them into rivers and oceans. It’s a half-hearted way in which he hopes to be famous someday. It’s not until book five that I finally pay that off in full, but I’ve known exactly where it was heading the whole time.]

I’ve been wondering why Dranko does that since the third chapter of book one! I can’t wait to see what happens next!

Thank you so much for talking D&D and writing with me! I’ve enjoyed it so much! Do you have any closing thoughts?

First, thank you so much for inviting me to be part of this event! It’s been a real pleasure chatting with you about something that’s been such an important part of my life.
Second: I know there are readers for whom “based on a D&D game” carries a huge stigma when it comes to fantasy books. To those people, I would say: Remember, some of the genre’s most beloved works had humble tabletop origins: Erikson’s Malazan, Feist’s Riftwar Saga, Brust’s Vlad Taltos series, even Tchaikovsky’s excellent Shadows of the Apt series, not to mention all the books by Hickman & Weis, and Salvatore.

I understand the concerns, since there are some potential pitfalls in translating a TTRPG campaign into novels. But if an author is aware of them, and understands what makes the two different, a fantasy series born from a campaign can be as good as any other.

Dorian Hart wrote an excellent essay on this subject for Storytellers on Tour. They have graciously allowed me to post the link here, if you would like to read it: RPGs and Novels.

About the author:

Dorian Hart is the author of the Heroes of Spira epic fantasy series, which currently includes The Ventifact Colossus, The Crosser’s Maze, and The Greatwood Portal. He also wrote the interactive science fiction novella Choice of the Star Captain for Choice of Games.

In a bygone century, Dorian graduated from Wesleyan University with a degree in creative writing. This led circuitously to a 20-year career as a video game designer, where he contributed to many award-winning titles including Thief, System Shock, System Shock 2, and BioShock.

Now he writes books in his Boston-area study, serves as the stay-at-home dad for his two teenage daughters, and happily allows his wife to drag him off on various wilderness adventures.

Amazon links:
The Ventifact Colossus
The Crosser’s Maze
The Greatwood Portal
The Infinite Tower



Self-published Authors Appreciation Week: An Interview with Geoff Habiger and Coy Kissee

Banner Credit: Anca Antoci

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to interview the authors of Joy of the Widow’s Tears, Geoff Habiger and Coy Kissee. This writing team will be contributing something pretty stinking cool to this blog in the next month, but I’m not saying what. Keep your eyes peeled!

Reva and Ansee face fresh threats as a new evil is imported into Tenyl and threatens the city with an undead plague. Constable Inspector Reva Lunaria’s life is looking up. She’s managed to put two groups of unruly adventurers in jail and she gets word that her boyfriend, Aavril, has just arrived in port. She is looking forward to a relaxing dinner, a present, and maybe some time getting reacquainted after Aavril’s long absence. But Aavril’s ship has delivered more than a cargo of spices and exotic merchandise and a new evil begins to take root within Tenyl. Reva’s romantic evening is spoiled by news of a double murder. It should be a simple case, except that the victims have disappeared. Reva’s investigation barely gets started before Lord Constable Inspector Betulla contrives a way to get Reva suspended. With Reva temporarily off the force, the murder investigation is given to Constable Inspector Pflamtael, who is looking to find the fastest resolution to the case. Meanwhile, Seeker Ansee Carya investigates what appears to be a simple missing person case, until he discovers that the missing people – including the two murder victims – have become zombies. Now, Reva, with the aid of a halpbloed cleric, must work from outside the constabulary to figure out who is creating the undead, and how to stop the creatures before all of Tenyl becomes infected. (taken from Amazon)

First, why don’t you tell me a little bit about Joy of the Widow’s Tears?

Geoff: “Joy of the Widow’s Tears is the second book in our fantasy detective series, the Constable Inspector Lunaria Adventures. In this book, Reva and her magic-user partner, Seeker Ansee Carya, are sent to investigate a potential double homicide, but when they get to the crime scene, both of the victim’s bodies have disappeared. The case is off to a bad start, and it gets worse when Reva is suspended for the way she handled the arrest of some adventurers. Reva figures that the time off will be good, since her boyfriend, Aavril, has just arrived back in town after spending months at sea. Unfortunately, Reva learns that Aavril has been promoted, and will be returning to sea instead of staying in Tenyl like he’d promised. Meanwhile, Seeker Carya investigates a missing persons case and soon discovers that his missing persons, and the missing murder victims, have all become seemingly invulnerable zombies with very strange powers. Reva must work outside the law to stop the mad cultist who is controlling these undead before they are unleashed upon the city.”

What first inspired you to write? What drew you to writing fantasy?

Geoff:” I would say that I just have an overactive imagination. I always made up stories when I played as a kid, and I realized I could tell these stories to other people. My interest in fantasy came from Dungeons & Dragons. Being able to play games in worlds filled with magic, monsters, and dragons, fueled my interest in reading fantasy, but also in writing it.”

Coy: “Reading. Once you read enough books, on varied subjects, by different authors and in different genres, you start to think “I can do that”. What drew me to fantasy – the short answer, Gary Gygax. I have vast roots in Dungeons & Dragons and other RPGs. Plus, I’ve always liked other legends from real life, like King Arthur and Robin Hood.”

When working on a book, what comes first for you–the characters or the plot?

Geoff: “Yes. They both seem to come about at the same time. Sometimes the plot comes first and a character is developed to suit that story. Other times, it is the character that comes first. For us, more often than not, it is the character that comes first. In the Reva Lunaria series, it was Reva who came first. Our basic premise for the series was, “In a world of magic and monsters, how do the cops solve crimes?” We couldn’t figure out what the stories would be, or what the plots were, until we knew who Reva was. What kind of person is she? How does she act and react?

For our other series, a vampire gangster series that starts with Unremarkable, the basic plot came first. Once we had that, then we found a character, in Saul, who fit into the story that we wanted to tell.”

Did you base any of your characters on yourself in any way?

“Not intentionally. One of the characters (Ansee) is the same height as Geoff and seems to be as timid and cautious as Geoff is, though that wasn’t intentional. We just wanted somebody who could contrast with Reva. On the other hand, Reva very much has Coy’s personality. That does make it pretty easy to write her, since Coy just needs to know how he’d act in a similar situation. But we didn’t start out planning her that way, it just works that her forthrightness and determination, and inability to suffer fools, really matches with Coy’s personality.” 

What was the hardest character or part to write?

“For Coy, it is the exposition, writing the back story, information, and other details that give depth. For Geoff, the hardest parts to write are the dialogue, making sure that characters remain true to their own voice and don’t all start sounding the same.

Characters come and go, and if the dialogue isn’t right – if you can’t experience them and get the essence of that character – then you probably need a new character. Coy is very good at making sure that the character’s essence is there and remains consistent throughout the book. Geoff likes the exposition and background, writing the setting and description of people and places. He makes sure that the stage dressing is there for the characters to perform within. We think that our skill sets really complement each other and that really makes our writing click.”

You mesh fantasy with a detective character: what are some challenges with that? What is something you love about putting those two types of books together?

“One challenge is that, when you have a prevalence of magic, you have to prevent the solving of the crime from being too easy. It’s not good if your magic user can just cast a spell and identify the murderer. We have to make sure that there is enough mystery, enough of a challenge, like you’d find in a traditional (non-fantasy) mystery novel, so that the mystery will unfold as the story progresses. To make sure that we don’t let this happen, we have created rules for our magic system, to give us a framework for the world and to make sure that our characters still must face challenges and overcome struggles to be able to solve a crime.

Why do we put them together? They’re fun! We both love detective stories and fantasy stories, so putting them together just made sense. Plus, it’s a shift in the paradigm. It’s not just another detective novel, and not just another fantasy novel. There are so many books in each of those genres already, so in a world of fantasy and mystery, how do you stand out? For us, it was to put them together. Might we have alienated some readers of each genre by doing that? Probably. But have we gained some readers who didn’t know that this was a thing and it was missing from their lives? Heck, yes. And we love meeting them.”

Is it easier for you to write a villainous character or a hero? Which is more fun?

“The villain is easier, hands down. Their motivations are simpler, and generally they don’t have to be as complex as the heroes (though having complexity does give depth). Plus, with villains, we usually don’t have to have deep back stories, or try to interweave multiple sub-plots, character interactions, or other things that our main protagonists have to deal with from book to book.

As to fun, for us it is some of the minor characters that pop into the story, who are neither the hero nor the villain, that are the most fun to write. With them, we are not constrained by their motives or their actions, and we can play them however we want. We sometimes play these minor characters for humor, but we can also play them as over-the-top characters to help contrast with our main characters. In this series, we have several characters that are fun to write. Rhoanlan is a pawn broker, a known fence for stolen items, and a confidential informant that Reva uses. He is based on Sidney Greenstreet’s character of Signor Ferrari in Casablanca – a man who has his fingers in many places, has the pulse of the city, seems to know more information than everybody else, and will give it up for the right price. Rhoanlan has been in both books in the series so far. In Joy of the Widow’s Tears, we introduced several other minor characters that are a lot of fun to write. Pfastbinder is a cleric of Banok, the god of chaos, and this gives us immense freedom in how we play him, and in how he interacts with the other characters. Another new character is Amaryllis, who is a costume designer at Pfenestra’s Playhouse, and is another resource that Reva sometimes uses if she is in need of a disguise. Amaryllis is a blend of Nathan Lane’s character of Albert from The Birdcage and Edna Mode from The Incredibles. This makes Amaryllis very easy to write, and a lot of fun.”

I know you also work in publishing. Does that affect your writing process at all?

“Only in the sense that it means that Geoff has less time to write. It doesn’t really affect the actual writing process itself. We still plot our stories (we are both plotters) and then Geoff usually writes the first draft while Coy then fixes all of Geoff’s mistakes, corrects the dialogue, and makes sure that it is a coherent story.

Where being a publisher really helps is in what happens after the story is written. The publishing company (Shadow Dragon Press, which is an imprint of the main company, Artemesia Publishing, LLC) handles the expenses for editing, cover design, etc., as well as distribution and marketing. Geoff treats himself and Coy the same as he does all of the other writers he publishes, giving just as much focus to their stories so that there is no playing of favorites.”

Lastly, I’m always curious? What is your favorite book (and you can absolutely say your own!)

Coy: “Currently, John Dies at the End by David Wong.”

Geoff: “Without Remorse by Tom Clancy because it is a great character study.”

About the authors:

The writing duo of Geoff Habiger and Coy Kissee have been life-long friends since high school in Manhattan, Kansas. (Affectionately known as the Little Apple, which was a much better place to grow up than the Big Apple, in our humble opinion.) We love reading, baseball, cats, role-playing games, comics, and board games (not necessarily in that order and sometimes the cats can be very trying). We’ve spent many hours together over the years (and it’s been many years) basically geeking out and talking about our favorite books, authors, and movies, often discussing what we would do differently to fix a story or make a better script. We eventually turned this passion into something more than just talk and now write the stories that we want to read. 
Coy lives with his wife in Lenexa, Kansas. Geoff lives with his wife and son in Tijeras, New Mexico.

Self-published fantasy authors: an interview with Dorian Hart

Wrapping up a month full of interviews with some incredible authors of self-published fantasy, I’m excited to be able to interview Dorian Hart, author of The Heroes of Spira. Before diving in, I want to encourage you, Reader, to check out some self-published authors (be they writers of fantasy or another genre). Okay, now on to the interview!

First, why don’t you tell me a little bit about The Heroes of Spira?

The Heroes of Spira is hopeful epic fantasy with an ensemble cast and loads of magic. By “hopeful” I mean whatever the opposite of Grimdark is; while bad things happen to my protagonists, and they don’t always get along, they are fundamentally good people I want readers to cheer for. The tone is (mostly) light-hearted, and though the series isn’t comedic fantasy, there’s plenty of humor in it.

Who are the Heroes of Spira? They are:

Dranko Blackhope, a priest-turned-pickpocket, kicked out of his church for excessive pranksterism and his irreverent mouth. Being part goblin does not help his reputation.

Ysabel Horn, an elderly farmer’s widow with a practical streak. She’s understandably confused about being chosen to help save the world.

Ernest Roundhill, a baker’s son sorely lacking in self-confidence. He’s wondering why there’s a hundreds-of-years-old statue of himself buried under his neighbor’s tavern.

Aravia Telmir, a brilliant but arrogant wizard’s apprentice who really misses her cat.

Grey Wolf, a hard-bitten mercenary who’s not very happy about his new role as Chosen Hero.

Morningstar of Ell, a priestess of the goddess of night. She’s not allowed to walk outdoors in daylight, which could complicate her inclusion in this motley group.

Tor Bladebearer, a young nobleman’s son and talented swordsman who thinks being picked to help save Spira is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to him.

Kibilhathur Bimson, a shy craftsman who insists his ability to speak with stones isn’t real magic. It’s just something he does.

The five books (three published, the fourth currently in edits, and I’ve begun the first draft of the fifth and final) are in essence one single story. While I think each volume stands on its own just fine, the primary ongoing narrative arc spans all five books, and there are plenty of mysteries, plot threads, and character arcs that stretch across multiple volumes.

In the broadest sense, the stories are about a group of in-over-their-heads would-be heroes saving the world from an ever-escalating and ultimately interconnected series of threats. They explore strange magical locales and contest with all sorts of enemies, human and otherwise, while engaging in plenty of entertaining banter and generally making themselves into a Found Family That Quests Together. It’s classic fantasy, full of wizards, magical artifacts, strange creatures, exploration and quests, gods and prophecies, as well as a villain with a perfect moustache and an unflappable butler with an unexpected secret. If that sounds like something you’d enjoy, you can start with The Ventifact Colossus.

Your description of your book as the opposite of Grimdark makes perfect sense to me. There is a pervading sense of optimism throughout. Was it difficult to keep that feel while also maintaining a sense of urgency in the characters’ quest? How did you go about doing that so well?

Well, first, it’s kind of you to imply that I’m succeeding in at least some of what I set out to do! 😊

My natural preference is for optimistic characters, and my writing style lends itself to lighter, humor-laced storytelling. In that sense, I’m sure I’d find it more difficult to write grim and fatalistic heroes in a dark setting. But also, I don’t think there’s a natural separation between optimism and urgency. Quite the opposite, at least for me; pessimistic characters might be inclined to give up or not care about the problems besetting themselves and the world they inhabit. In large part, the characters’ hopefulness lets me steadily raise the stakes without worrying about keeping them motivated!

What first inspired you to write? What drew you to writing fantasy?

I’ve been writing fiction since I was a wee lad. (The first story I recall writing I scribed when I was 8. It was about two men getting into a series of perilous situations, and who were constantly saved by lucky accidents precipitated by the one who was always drunk. My teacher wrote a note to my parents which (paraphrased) said: “This story is remarkably advanced for a child Dorian’s age, and also we need to have a parent-teacher conference RIGHT NOW about his home life.”)

I’ve been absorbing fantasy books since I was very young, and was inspired most by The Hobbit, Narnia, and the Chronicles of Prydain. If you had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up any time before my 10th birthday, I would have said “A baseball player for the Philadelphia Phillies.” But around that time, when my lack of athletic prowess was becoming too obvious to ignore, my answer changed to “A fantasy novelist.” That answer hasn’t changed in 40 years.

When working on a book, what comes first for you–the characters or the plot?

Characters first. Always characters. If I can’t make my readers care about my heroes, how can I expect them to become invested in the story?


I’m not saying that plot isn’t important. Even the most vivid characters will have trouble carrying a boring plot. But it’s not enough to make readers think: “I want to know what happens next.” They have to think: “I want to know what happens next to these people.

Did you base any of your characters on yourself in any way?

As though I would be so cruel to my poor characters!

But, seriously, the answer is mostly no – I’m not that interesting a person! – but I do think my personal desire to solve problems diplomatically probably bleeds over into some of my characters and how they interact with one another.

Also, don’t tell anyone, but I have plans to have a character in a future book who makes puns and dad-jokes. I cannot deny that such behavior would have a solid grounding in the author’s psyche.

I’m going to use this as a non-sequitur-ish segue into a small vignette from my family life. I told my wife about my plans for the dad-joking character recently. I also went on to describe a foil character who would HATE the puns and corny jokes at the beginning, but slowly, slowly come around on them, until by the end of the book they’d be making dad-jokes of their own.

My wife’s reaction to that second character: “That’s why they call it ‘fantasy.’”

Several of your characters have unique traits. Poor Ernest has zero self-confidence. Morningstar has a physical trait that makes it difficult for her to be a part of the group at first. Dranko has goblin ancestry, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a main character. What are some of the challenges of writing characters that have interior obstacles, as well as those that they face together?

I’ve always imagined my band of heroes (who style themselves “Horn’s Company” part way through the first book) going on three parallel journeys.

The most obvious one is the surface plot; they travel, quest, suffer, and triumph as they peel back layers of the Plot Onion™ and fight to save everything they hold dear.

The second journey is the evolution of the group as a whole. They start out disorganized and a bit hapless, as well as mostly doing what they’re told. By the end they’re making decisions with little guidance or assistance, devising plans, and working as a much more cohesive team. It’s by no means a smooth progression—there are plenty of setbacks and bumps on the road—but Horn’s Company has come a long way by the final book.

Finally, each character is on journey of their own, as they’re shaped and pushed by forces external and internal. Morningstar has to deal with her history of ostracism and feelings of isolation in addition to the physical challenge of walking in daylight. Ernest needs to find his confidence and overcome what we think of today as Imposter Syndrome. Dranko has his goblinoid physical appearance to deal with, as well as the constant consequences of his irreverent attitude. Each of the other heroes has some similar arc of growth and change, though that change isn’t always clearly for the better.

When guiding my characters past (or in some cases smashing them into) their interior obstacles, the biggest challenge for me is pacing their arcs across five books and bringing out their nuances in a natural way. Ernest’s journey, for instance, isn’t a matter of him performing a single brave deed and WHAM! he’s Mr. Confident. Different people change in different ways, at different speeds, and in reaction to different pressures.

You have a background in video game designing. Does your background influence your writing? 

I get asked this a lot, and the disappointing answer is “No, not really.”  My career in video games had me working alongside some fantastic writers – Austin Grossman, and later Ken Levine — who were already doing the vast majority of the storytelling. I found my niche as the “numbers guy” who focused on game balance, resource economies, and progression curves. (I was almost a math major in college before I came to my senses and pursued creative writing.)

Far more relevant to my writing is my history with tabletop RPG’s. I learned the craft of GM-ing from Kevin Kulp, an extraordinarily talented writer and TTRPG designer. Inspired by his skill, I designed and ran a 15-year-long D&D campaign, the bones of which form the skeleton of The Heroes of Spira.

I’m sure some of your readers have just had blaring alarms go off in their heads. “Oh, this is just some dude retelling his D&D campaign! I hate that!” To those people, I can offer this balm: While I used my 15 years of world-building as a foundation, I’ve always centered the characters at the heart of these books. I’ve also put a lot of effort into thinking about why RPG campaigns are typically not well suited for novelization, and what it would take to make that transition work. Before I started the first chapter of the first book, I spent months pondering issues of pacing, characters and their motivations, foreshadowing, the artificial feeling of “leveling up” and “character classes,” and the fact that games and books, at a fundamental level, are aimed at different audiences.

I’d like to think that The Heroes of Spira will evoke the feel of spying on a table where a truly epic D&D campaign is playing out, but without the burden and awkwardness of all the surface trappings of TTRPGs.

One of my favorite review quotes thus far has been this: “While some D&D-inspired novels struggle to be anything but a D&D campaign transcript, The Ventifact Colossus rises above the inspiration and proves to be an entertaining, relatively lighthearted, and satisfying story with a whole lot of heart.”

What was the hardest character or part to write?

I hope it’s not too spoilery to say that there’s a death scene in a later book that got me a bit choked up to write. One side-effect of writing lovable heroes is that I grow quite attached to them. On top of wanting to make sure I gave them a suitably emotional send-off, I was extremely sad to see them go.


Is it easier for you to write a villainous character or a hero? Which is more fun?

I love writing villains! Maybe it’s because I’m such a harmless, dopey, middle-aged*, dad-joking fellow, but I adore the chapters when I get to write the bad guys, be they cackling moustache-twirlers or urbane banter-maesters. The main villain of the fourth book (“The Infinite Tower”) is a person named Axamand who pursues the heroes through a [SPOILER REDACTED]. He’s confident, talented, outwardly likable, enjoys nature, values his relationship with his partner, likes a good challenge, and can’t stop reminding the reader that he’s also a horrific sadist. He’s been the most fun character to write in the series to date. 

*
Can I still say I’m middle-aged at 51? Even though the AARP is flooding my house with mail like Hogwarts trying to make sure Harry gets his invitation?

Do you have any writing quirks, or a routine that you stick to?

I’m not sure this is a quirk per se, but I do a thing that most authors will say loudly NOT to do, which is edit as I go. I can’t help myself. Even knowing I may later delete whole section or chapters, I still smooth out my sentences. Yes, it results in some wasted effort, but it also means my first drafts are remarkably clean. (Not that I don’t still go back and hack them to pieces!)

As for routine, when I’m in drafting mode, I take great pains to write at least 500 words every day, no matter what else is happening or how late it is when I start. I keep a spreadsheet of progress and word counts, and when I miss a day due to emergency or wilderness vacations, I know exactly how much I need to write to maintain a 500 WPD average.


Are you a “pantser” or a “plotter”?

According to my meticulous calculations and overly complicated spreadsheets, I am 83% plotter and 17% pantser.

Before I wrote a single word of the Heroes of Spira, I had outlined all the major plot events and most of the connecting threads for all five books. That has given me a big advantage when it comes to foreshadowing and setting up big scenes in satisfying ways.

I also had character arcs broadly sketched, but I’ve often found my protagonists doing and saying things I hadn’t mapped out. That can lead to some surprising threads that I’ve then had to figure out how to weave into the larger tapestry of the series.

I will say that despite my preference for thorough outlining, sometimes my pants take over. For example (and please excuse the vagueness in the interest of non-spoilage) in one of the books, a character finds himself unexpectedly imprisoned by his enemies. My outline called for a series of conversations between the hero and his captor, along with some thwarted escape attempts, on the way to a pivotal final confrontation. But when I started to write the first scene in that arc, the very first person he encountered was a spy who’d infiltrated the enemy organization, and who promised to help him escape. That person was nowhere in my notes, and literally came into being as I was writing her. It felt perfectly right and proper at the time. I rejiggered that entire sub-arc to accommodate her. And since then, I’ve written that new character into the outline for the final book, where they’ll serve a small but vital role in the story.


I love that your book has that “classic fantasy feel” to it. Do you have any inspirations in the genre, or authors you look up to?

The full list of authors I admire and from whom I derive inspiration would be prohibitively long for this format, but I’m happy to share a few.

Michael J. Sullivan, author of the “Riyria Revelations” and its many prequels, is probably my closest “comp” among writers. Not that I can match his skill, of course, but he writes character-centered adventure stories with a similar “planned arc” feel to Heroes of Spira. (I’ve had two separate reviewers make that connection, so it’s not entirely my imagination!)

Mike Shel is a fellow self-published author who I think is absolutely brilliant. His Iconoclasts series is a great take on D&D-ish storytelling, though his books are much darker and more atmospheric than mine.

Josiah Bancroft inspires me not only with his amazing prose, but also because he’s such a genuine, kind, and helpful person on social media. (I assume he’s that way in real life, too!) I hope if I ever achieve half his success, I can comport myself with such humility and grace.

Lastly, I’m always curious? What is your favorite book (and you can absolutely say your own!)

Oh, goodness. My answer to this question depends on my mood and changes often enough that I’ll give you a half-dozen of my favorites.

Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov is a playful puzzle box of a novel that showcases Nabokov’s gorgeous prose without the subject-matter discomfort of Lolita.

Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R.Tolkien is beautiful and atmospheric, a seminal work in the genre, and my sentimental favorite. Who else can get away with starting so many sentences with “And lo!” and have it not seem corny?!

The Hod King, by Josiah Bancroft is a masterpiece, and its author a true maestro of the perfect simile. (Note that this is the third book in his Books of Babel series, and the author is currently working on the fourth and final volume.) I don’t think I’ve ever been more eager for a book release!

West with the Night is the memoir of Beryl Markham, the first aviator to cross the Atlantic east to west. Utterly gripping, with prose so crackling it’s probably dangerous to read in the bathtub. (The author is one of the few that the famously cantankerous Ernest Hemingway is on record as heaping praise upon.)

The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow. I’m a sucker for elegant prose, and this book delivers the wordsmithing goods in a lovely tale about magic doors and the power of stories.

The Scar, by China Mieville. If you’re ever in the mood for something mind-bendingly weird, often terrifying, and fantastically written, first read Perdido Street Station, and then read this.


Author Bio:

Dorian Hart is the author of the Heroes of Spira epic fantasy series, which currently includes The Ventifact Colossus, The Crosser’s Maze, and The Greatwood Portal. He also wrote the interactive science fiction novella Choice of the Star Captain for Choice of Games.

In a bygone century, Dorian graduated from Wesleyan University with a degree in creative writing. This led circuitously to a 20-year career as a video game designer, where he contributed to many award-winning titles including Thief, System Shock, System Shock 2, and BioShock.

Now he writes books in his Boston-area study, serves as the stay-at-home dad for his two teenage daughters, and happily allows his wife to drag him off on various wilderness adventures.

Self-published Fantasy Authors: an Interview with D.H. Willison

Amazon.com: Harpyness is Only Skin Deep eBook: Willison, D. H.: Kindle Store

I’m excited to be interviewing author D.H. Willison today. Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. Let’s dive right in!

First, why don’t you tell me a little bit about Harpyness is Only Skin Deep, and Finding Your Harpy Place.

In a word: fun. The novels take place on Arvia, a beautiful, dangerous, crazy world filled with colorful, larger-than-life characters and mythical monsters more colorful and larger still. The world is seen through the eyes of two very different characters. Rinloh, the harpy main character, is one of the mythical monsters, and at a mere three stories tall, one of the smaller ones at that. Yet somehow she remains cheerful, empathetic, and insatiably curious.

And on a world brimming with danger, crawling with giant mythical monsters, a world where only the strongest, boldest warriors would dare set foot, what is the main human character like? Let me introduce Darin: a weak, nerdy, introspective adventurer wannabe, who’d love to whip out the blistering broadsword of badassary and charge in, but whose equipment is more along the lines of a rusty dagger, three novelty stink-bombs, and half a flask of cheap brandy.

I could tell you about the nefarious plot behind the disappearances in the city of Xin in Harpyness is Only Skin Deep. Or the mysterious artifact casting a long shadow of tragedy in Finding your Harpy Place. But that’s not what the books are about. They are about Darin and Rinloh, two incredibly different characters who find friendship in the most unexpected places. And fun.

What? You want me to actually describe the books? OK, fine.

Harpyness is Only Skin Deep is a portal fantasy. Darin is shocked at the dangers of this strange world he finds himself stranded on. Rinloh may be native to Arvia, but she and her flock are anything but “birds of a feather.” The two meet under difficult circumstances indeed: a human hunt. Yet as they get to know each other, they learn that they can be stronger together because of their differences, not in spite of them.

Finding your Harpy Place is a quest story. Our characters face long journeys, discovering new cities, new cultures and new monsters as they struggle to complete their quests. Using novelty stink-bombs. Or not. Release date, November 14, 2020.

Harpyness is Only Skin Deep is the first story chronologically, but they are independent and can be read in either order. Both are written for the adult reader.

What first inspired you to write? What drew you to writing fantasy?

I’ve written stories since I was a child, usually of some crazy adventure I had playing through my mind. And although I’ve written in a variety of genres, I like extremes, and the fantasy genre is most accepting of extremes. You can break the laws of physics, biology, economics, and occasionally even good taste, and still make it work. The heartfelt story of a friendship between a giant harpy with talons that would shame a t-rex, and a human that should, by all rights, not have survived the first ten minutes of his trip to Arvia? Why not? It all makes perfect sense!

When working on a book, what comes first for you–the characters or the plot?

Characters are most important, but the plot is frequently hardest to write. Once a character is fully developed in my head it’s usually clear what they will do or say in certain situations. But then the fun begins: how do I actually get them into those situations? To me the plot is a frame, it has to show off the characters at their best and their worst, and that can be damn tricky.

Did you base any of your characters on yourself in any way?

I wish! Darin is way cooler than I am. And he doesn’t freeze when he’s put on the spot! Seriously though, it’s hard not to put parts of yourself into characters – subconsciously at least, though I do it consciously as well. I find it especially helpful when writing how a character feels in certain intense situations: is there something from my own life I can relate to? While I’ve regrettably only lived on contemporary earth, for many situations in my novels, there is something I can relate to from my life. I’ll remember a situation where I was genuinely afraid for my life. Or elated, or furious, or jealous. I try to remember the details of how I felt. What did I say? And was there a gap between how I felt and what I said?

So while I’ve never encountered a harpy or a mermaid, I can relate to that time I nearly stepped on that huge timber rattlesnake that was crossing the path. Or that time at work where I got thrown under the bus in the middle of a big meeting. Or the party where I felt awkward and embarrassed. Or any number of others.

And Darin’s ability to think and talk coherently even in the most dangerous situations is like a superpower for me.

What was the hardest character or part to write?

My writing mantra: if it’s funny, go for it. And since I prefer making people laugh, tragic scenes are usually difficult for me to write. I really don’t like torturing my characters, even the ones that kinda deserve it. But even though the tone is generally light, it is a dangerous world, and bad things do happen.

You have a large amount of the fantastical in your world. How do you come up with so many unique creatures?

Most of the creatures on Arvia have roots in either mythology or real animals. Harpies in mythology are generally portrayed as ferocious and ruthless. On Arvia they are taken to the extreme: giant-sized, with an appetite for human flesh. But the real fun comes from taking their characteristics and thinking through what it would mean if you were that creature. I treat all my creatures as if they could be POV characters. They are not monsters to be conquered, but a part of the world, and they have their own day-to-day problems. Can you put yourself into the shoes of a harpy?

That was a trick question. Harpies don’t wear shoes. And they also find it totally bizarre that humans have feet so weak as to require them–and can’t even properly grasp a branch. To me, what makes a creature interesting and unique is not just how they look, but how they think.

Is it easier for you to write a villainous character or a hero? Which is more fun?

I tend not to use the classic heroic character archetype, but my version of a hero is easier and more fun. I try to put myself in the shoes of all my characters (even those that can’t wear shoes) to make them feel authentic, to give them realistic-feeling motivations. And I find it downright painful putting myself in the shoes of a truly evil character. But, we must suffer for our art, right?

What do you do to “get in the zone”?

I used to put on a suit of harpy feathers and walk around the neighborhood saying things like “tremble in terror, puny humans.” But then the neighbors started giving me strange looks, rumors started spreading, and feathers kept getting stuck in my keyboard. Honestly, I tend to work non-sequentially, so if I’m drawing a blank for the next scene, I’ll skip ahead a ways and work on a different type of scene. Or if that doesn’t work I can do research. Or work through background stories for characters, or the history of cities. It’s really just a matter of making the time, sitting down and writing. Regardless of my mood, there’s always something I can do.

Lastly, I’m always curious? What is your favorite book (and you can absolutely say your own!)

I absolutely love my own, but have a soft spot for the first fantasy humor I ever read, Another Fine Myth. I still love the dialog (especially Aahz) and outlandish situations. Puts a smile on my face every time.

About the author:

D.H. Willison is a reader, writer, game enthusiast and developer, engineer, and history enthusiast. He’s lived around the world, absorbing history, culture, and food. Actually he’s eaten the food. It has been verified that he is a complex, multicellular life form. Fascinated by nature, technology, and history, and especially anything that can put all three of these together, he has an annoying habit of dragging his wife to the most unromantic destinations imaginable, including outdoor museums, authentic castle dungeons, the holds of tall ships, and even the tunnels of the Maginot Line.

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Blog: https://dhwillisoncreates.com/blog

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Self-published fantasy authors: an interview with Geoff Habiger and Coy Kissee

First, why don’t you tell me a little bit about Joy of the Widow’s Tears?

Geoff: “Joy of the Widow’s Tears is the second book in our fantasy detective series, the Constable Inspector Lunaria Adventures. In this book, Reva and her magic-user partner, Seeker Ansee Carya, are sent to investigate a potential double homicide, but when they get to the crime scene, both of the victim’s bodies have disappeared. The case is off to a bad start, and it gets worse when Reva is suspended for the way she handled the arrest of some adventurers. Reva figures that the time off will be good, since her boyfriend, Aavril, has just arrived back in town after spending months at sea. Unfortunately, Reva learns that Aavril has been promoted, and will be returning to sea instead of staying in Tenyl like he’d promised. Meanwhile, Seeker Carya investigates a missing persons case and soon discovers that his missing persons, and the missing murder victims, have all become seemingly invulnerable zombies with very strange powers. Reva must work outside the law to stop the mad cultist who is controlling these undead before they are unleashed upon the city.”

What first inspired you to write? What drew you to writing fantasy?

Geoff:” I would say that I just have an overactive imagination. I always made up stories when I played as a kid, and I realized I could tell these stories to other people. My interest in fantasy came from Dungeons & Dragons. Being able to play games in worlds filled with magic, monsters, and dragons, fueled my interest in reading fantasy, but also in writing it.”

Coy: “Reading. Once you read enough books, on varied subjects, by different authors and in different genres, you start to think “I can do that”. What drew me to fantasy – the short answer, Gary Gygax. I have vast roots in Dungeons & Dragons and other RPGs. Plus, I’ve always liked other legends from real life, like King Arthur and Robin Hood.”

When working on a book, what comes first for you–the characters or the plot?

Geoff: “Yes. They both seem to come about at the same time. Sometimes the plot comes first and a character is developed to suit that story. Other times, it is the character that comes first. For us, more often than not, it is the character that comes first. In the Reva Lunaria series, it was Reva who came first. Our basic premise for the series was, “In a world of magic and monsters, how do the cops solve crimes?” We couldn’t figure out what the stories would be, or what the plots were, until we knew who Reva was. What kind of person is she? How does she act and react?

For our other series, a vampire gangster series that starts with Unremarkable, the basic plot came first. Once we had that, then we found a character, in Saul, who fit into the story that we wanted to tell.”


Did you base any of your characters on yourself in any way?

“Not intentionally. One of the characters (Ansee) is the same height as Geoff and seems to be as timid and cautious as Geoff is, though that wasn’t intentional. We just wanted somebody who could contrast with Reva. On the other hand, Reva very much has Coy’s personality. That does make it pretty easy to write her, since Coy just needs to know how he’d act in a similar situation. But we didn’t start out planning her that way, it just works that her forthrightness and determination, and inability to suffer fools, really matches with Coy’s personality.” 

What was the hardest character or part to write?

“For Coy, it is the exposition, writing the back story, information, and other details that give depth. For Geoff, the hardest parts to write are the dialogue, making sure that characters remain true to their own voice and don’t all start sounding the same.

Characters come and go, and if the dialogue isn’t right – if you can’t experience them and get the essence of that character – then you probably need a new character. Coy is very good at making sure that the character’s essence is there and remains consistent throughout the book. Geoff likes the exposition and background, writing the setting and description of people and places. He makes sure that the stage dressing is there for the characters to perform within. We think that our skill sets really complement each other and that really makes our writing click.”

You mesh fantasy with a detective character: what are some challenges with that? What is something you love about putting those two types of books together?

“One challenge is that, when you have a prevalence of magic, you have to prevent the solving of the crime from being too easy. It’s not good if your magic user can just cast a spell and identify the murderer. We have to make sure that there is enough mystery, enough of a challenge, like you’d find in a traditional (non-fantasy) mystery novel, so that the mystery will unfold as the story progresses. To make sure that we don’t let this happen, we have created rules for our magic system, to give us a framework for the world and to make sure that our characters still must face challenges and overcome struggles to be able to solve a crime.

Why do we put them together? They’re fun! We both love detective stories and fantasy stories, so putting them together just made sense. Plus, it’s a shift in the paradigm. It’s not just another detective novel, and not just another fantasy novel. There are so many books in each of those genres already, so in a world of fantasy and mystery, how do you stand out? For us, it was to put them together. Might we have alienated some readers of each genre by doing that? Probably. But have we gained some readers who didn’t know that this was a thing and it was missing from their lives? Heck, yes. And we love meeting them.”

Is it easier for you to write a villainous character or a hero? Which is more fun?

“The villain is easier, hands down. Their motivations are simpler, and generally they don’t have to be as complex as the heroes (though having complexity does give depth). Plus, with villains, we usually don’t have to have deep back stories, or try to interweave multiple sub-plots, character interactions, or other things that our main protagonists have to deal with from book to book.

As to fun, for us it is some of the minor characters that pop into the story, who are neither the hero nor the villain, that are the most fun to write. With them, we are not constrained by their motives or their actions, and we can play them however we want. We sometimes play these minor characters for humor, but we can also play them as over-the-top characters to help contrast with our main characters. In this series, we have several characters that are fun to write. Rhoanlan is a pawn broker, a known fence for stolen items, and a confidential informant that Reva uses. He is based on Sidney Greenstreet’s character of Signor Ferrari in Casablanca – a man who has his fingers in many places, has the pulse of the city, seems to know more information than everybody else, and will give it up for the right price. Rhoanlan has been in both books in the series so far. In Joy of the Widow’s Tears, we introduced several other minor characters that are a lot of fun to write. Pfastbinder is a cleric of Banok, the god of chaos, and this gives us immense freedom in how we play him, and in how he interacts with the other characters. Another new character is Amaryllis, who is a costume designer at Pfenestra’s Playhouse, and is another resource that Reva sometimes uses if she is in need of a disguise. Amaryllis is a blend of Nathan Lane’s character of Albert from The Birdcage and Edna Mode from The Incredibles. This makes Amaryllis very easy to write, and a lot of fun.”

I know you also work in publishing. Does that affect your writing process at all?

“Only in the sense that it means that Geoff has less time to write. It doesn’t really affect the actual writing process itself. We still plot our stories (we are both plotters) and then Geoff usually writes the first draft while Coy then fixes all of Geoff’s mistakes, corrects the dialogue, and makes sure that it is a coherent story.

Where being a publisher really helps is in what happens after the story is written. The publishing company (Shadow Dragon Press, which is an imprint of the main company, Artemesia Publishing, LLC) handles the expenses for editing, cover design, etc., as well as distribution and marketing. Geoff treats himself and Coy the same as he does all of the other writers he publishes, giving just as much focus to their stories so that there is no playing of favorites.”

Lastly, I’m always curious? What is your favorite book (and you can absolutely say your own!)

Coy: “Currently, John Dies at the End by David Wong.”

Geoff: “Without Remorse by Tom Clancy because it is a great character study.”

Author Bios:

The writing duo of Geoff Habiger and Coy Kissee have been life-long friends since high school in Manhattan, Kansas. (Affectionately known as the Little Apple, which was a much better place to grow up than the Big Apple, in our humble opinion.) We love reading, baseball, cats, role-playing games, comics, and board games (not necessarily in that order and sometimes the cats can be very trying). We’ve spent many hours together over the years (and it’s been many years) basically geeking out and talking about our favorite books, authors, and movies, often discussing what we would do differently to fix a story or make a better script. We eventually turned this passion into something more than just talk and now write the stories that we want to read. 

Coy lives with his wife in Lenexa, Kansas. Geoff lives with his wife and son in Tijeras, New Mexico.