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 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.

Self-published fantasy authors: an interview with Ryan Howse

First, why don’t you tell me a little bit about your books. 

“I’d love to. I have three books out. The first two are both in my A Concerto For the End of Days series, which takes place several centuries after a magical apocalypse so powerful it broke the world. Reality has been made much stranger, but human ingenuity has taken those setbacks, harnessed the magical currents of the world, and learned how to use it for their own gain. 

The Steel Discord is a magitech train heist that follows a young Arcanist who attempts to rescue his mentor from a military train.

The Alchemy Dirge is a noir that follows an alchemist and a black market arcana merchant. The alchemist is desperately trying to fund his newest invention, a printing press, and sells a batch of alchemy that turns volatile—and valuable. 

The third book is Red in Tooth and Claw, which was a palette cleanser for me. Instead of the intricate world-building and plotting of the others, it’s just two people from opposite sides of a war caught in the wilderness. They hate each other, and they can’t survive without the other.”

You’ve written several different series. Is there one in particular, that you’re extra fond of? 

“I think The Alchemy Dirge has all the urban intricacies down pat. Aeon feels like a living city, infused with a sense of weird that I love. It also has protagonists who are pretty far from traditional fantasy heroes. Salai, the alchemist, profoundly hates how much everyone he knows has been held back by their lower-class stature. Ilher, the merchant, wants to gain power in the city to shift the laws, not just because they’re holding him back but because he sincerely believes they’re unjust. Neither is a wizard or a warrior or an assassin. 

But no book has ever come out faster than Red in Tooth and Claw. It had been sitting in the back of my mind for nearly a decade, so once I started it, it flowed out fast.”

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

“I’ve been writing for as long as I remember. I have vivid memories of a ‘dinosaurs eat each other’ story I wrote quite young—possibly in kindergarten. As for genre, I love the potential of fantasy. Anything can happen. 

Yes, there are tropes that appear often—medieval European analogs, stabbing as an effective method of problem-solving—but none are required. You can bend the rules of reality. You can get the historical detail of a Miles Cameron if you want, or the wild abandon of China Mieville. I love the feeling one gets when the real and the unreal meet.”

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

“They feed off each other. The only reasonable answer is, ‘they come at the same time.’ If Salai didn’t create the volatile alchemy, The Alchemy Dirge wouldn’t have been a book. If I put Zarachius and Kyran into Red in Tooth and Claw, there’d be a lot less tension because they trust each other and would just banter. 

I work hard to make my protagonists make a choice early on which causes the plot. Zarachius could have realized his mentor was arrested and ran away instead of attempting a rescue. Salai could have refused to sell the alchemy that didn’t work right.”

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

“Most characters have some relation to me or I’d not write them. They need to make sense, even if I disagree with them. Zarachius and Kyran have a fun ‘give each other shit’ camaraderie reminiscent of my friends. I disagree with Ilher’s politics but I understand where he’s coming from.”

 What was the hardest character or part to write?

“Zarachius, definitely. Zarachius is obsessed with symbolism and believes fervently that reading these signs will lead to the best solution or at least give him warning of problems to come. Making that an integral part of the story, while not making him insufferable, was sometimes a tough act. His relationships with his brother, his friend, and his mentor were all key in making him human.”

I hear that you enjoy role playing games. As a fellow rpg player, I’m curious: how does storytelling differ from DM’ing?

“I love role-playing games! I’ve even created my own system, a sort of Star Trek meets Mass Effect space opera.

Challenging your players is always a wildly different beast than challenging your characters. For one, if you get the players into a difficult situation, it’s up to them to get out of it. Not so if you’re writing a book. If I get a character into a bind I need to figure out how to rescue them.

I also find running RPGs to be a lot more episodic than writing novels. It’s a bit more compartmentalized. A novel needs a sense of unity of theme and atmosphere throughout, while a good RPG campaign can have sessions feel wildly different. It’s closer to a TV show, if anything. One session about a character‘s backstory coming back to haunt them. One session as a tense horror on a derelict but not-quite-abandoned ship. One session that reminds everyone of the overarching plot.”

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

“Honestly, because I try to limit my POVs the books I have out currently only have protagonist POVs. Some of those protagonists are not great people—Agash from Red in Tooth and Claw is a timebomb of a man. But they are protagonists.

My villains all have reasons for what they do. I can only think of one who’s vile for the sake of it, and they’re fairly tertiary. But my antagonists have, so far, been given less page time to develop than the heroes.

The real key is to make the villains reflective of the protagonist in some way.

Unless the villain is a bear.”

What do you do to “get in the zone”?

“Lately, I’ve been using tabletopaudio.com It’s ambience for rpgs, but some of the pieces help get a sense of place. I used a lot of ‘Sea of Moving Ice’ for Red in Tooth and Claw, for instance. I can’t do silence or more bombastic music anymore.”

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

“The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. The perfect historical mystery novel. Aw yeah.

Doestoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov has the best characters in all of literature. Frankenstein is just an absolute perfect book; watching those two characters destroy each other is fascinating.

For somewhat more modern books, I have a lot of love for Matthew Stover’s Acts of Caine, China Mieville’s Bas-Lag novels, KJ Bishop’s The Etched City, Catherynne Valente’s Deathless, and Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard Sequence.”






Self-Published Fantasy Authors: an interview with author Jesse Nolan Bailey

The Jealousy of Jalice (A Disaster of Dokojin Book 1) by [Jesse Nolan Bailey]

Today, I’m excited to hear from Jesse Nolan Bailey, author of The Jealousy of Jalice. Thank you so much for taking a bit of time to chat with me!

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

The book is an adult dark fantasy featuring female protagonists (anti-heroines), demons, and plenty of bleak moments. It begins with two women enacting a scheme to overthrow a tyrant chief by first kidnapping his wife. Annilasia whisks Jalice off into a forest infested with beasts and demonic entities, while Delilee remains behind to spy on the chief. Yet a dangerous event from Jalice’s past threatens to undo their schemes.

It’s a book that caters to readers who want that spooky, creepy vibe in their fantasy stories, almost horror at times, but still maintains a tale that explores what it means to be human and all the emotions that come with that.

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

I’ve always loved fantasy and science fiction. If there’s aliens, ghosts, or dragons involved, count me in. Some of my favorite childhood series were The Magic Treehouse series, any Star Wars EU books, and The Bailey School Kids series. My obsession with fantastical tales only grew from there, and from a young age I knew I wanted to be a fantasy author.

Fantasy uses other-worldly settings and characters to draw in the reader, and provides a form of escape for a lot of people. Yet, I also found that, with a lot of fantasy, it speaks on real-life issues and emotions. I was a shy kid, and books helped me digest the real world around me while still hooking me with those fantastical elements. Books also taught me the power that words held, and how stories could be incredibly influential.

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

Both. Honestly, it’s usually a scene. I listen to instrumental movie scores to get inspired, and often times inspiration strikes when I envision a character in a specific setting or involved in some pivotal act. Almost like a movie trailer. I get bits and pieces that seem intriguing to me, and they slowly come together as I get to outlining the story further.

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

Most certainly, yes. Well-written characters evolve from a writer being able to tap into the character’s mindset and emotions. Doing so requires the writer to dig deep, and in my personal experience, it’s meant I’ve had to sit and mull over my own emotions and memories. Even villains are written this way. I think we view villains as ‘other’ or ‘inhuman’, but its usually their actions that fit those terms—their emotions, on the other hand, probably are more relatable than people would initially admit. Jealousy, anger, selfishness: we all experience these. It’s just our story-villains take those emotions and take extraordinary action on them that the average person wouldn’t. Or, at the very least, they take exaggerated actions.

Basically, yes, I think each of my main characters reflects different parts of me. Jalice is naïve and perpetuates a false innocence when really she is in denial of her past sins. Annilasia starts with a righteous anger over the state of her world, but this righteous anger quickly devolves into self-righteous pride and an uncontrollable temper. The villain, Hydrim, is stuck in a mindset of control and power with an unwillingness to examine his motivations and vulnerabilities that fuel that mindset.

I’ve been there—each of those mindsets. I think we all have in different moments of our lives.

What was the hardest character or part to write?

This is going to sound kind of silly, but honestly, for me its how a character looks. Finding unique and interesting ways to flesh out how a character looks and what they wear is difficult. My mindset if usually ‘get to the story, get to the magic, who cares what they look like?’ That, of course, isn’t going to fly with my readers, so I had to spend time learning how and when to describe a character’s looks.

I’ve heard this book being described as darker in tone? Would you agree?

Absolutely. That was my intention. This is certainly fantasy: there’s magic, there’s monsters, there’s swords and arrows. But this isn’t The Chronicles of Narnia by any means. My characters are incredibly flawed (i.e. not exactly noble for the most part), and the world they live in is harsh. Deformed monsters lurk in the bleak forest, and demon-like entities stalk the astral realms. Blood and screams infest the pages of this book.

Yet this wasn’t for the sake of shock value. I felt the darker setting was appropriate given the underlying themes I sought to explore. The personal betrayals and delusional mindsets are reflected in the world my characters inhabit.

What were some obstacles and joys of writing a bleaker world?

I worried that readers seeking fantasy would be put off by the horror elements. It felt like a risk. Fantasy typically features a noble and hopeful vibe, and although that still exists within this story, the bleaker world definitely swallows that up at times. From initial reactions though, readers seem to be enjoying this surprising genre-blend.

I enjoyed writing the horror elements. Horror evokes deep-rooted emotions that every human experiences: fear and dread. I think embedding those in with the fantasy setting helps accentuate the themes I was exploring. My characters get to interact with magic and swords while confronting their worst fears and the horrific effects of some of their decisions.

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

Easier? Probably the hero, though I use the term ‘hero’ very loosely whenever TJOJ is involved in the discussion. My protagonists aren’t heroes in the traditional definition. They’re just not evil enough to be considered villains. Villainous characters can be tough to write because they can easily become a caricature or cliché.

More fun? I think they both offer fun elements. Heroes get to save the day, but I honestly get the most enjoyment forcing my heroes to confront their flaws. Heroes are only as strong as their greatest vulnerabilities and their courage to face those alongside the monsters. Villains, on the other hand, are fun to write because (at least for me) it’s a sort of cathartic examination of the darker experiences of humanity. Perhaps that sounds troubling, but we all must at some point examine the seeds of darkness within ourselves. Writing villains allows an almost therapeutic outlet for that.

How do you “get in the writing zone”?

Music is a quick way to jump-start inspiration. So I listen to an instrumental song that fits the scene I’m attempting to dive into. Usually, sugar and caffeine are involved as well. I’m an author—the job description demands I be addicted to either coffee or tea. I’ve chosen coffee (easier to excuse the copious amounts of sugar I combine with it. Can’t get away with that as much with tea).

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

That’s a tough question. I think the book that has stuck with me the most is The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan. I haven’t even finished the series it belongs to (got half way through the series twice, but never have the momentum to get past that midway point). Yet, I really enjoy Jordan’s style of writing and the characters he created. Alongside Patrick Rothfuss, Jordan is who I hope to emulate someday with my writing style.

Self-published Fantasy Authors: an Interview with Virginia McClain

Today I have the pleasure of picking author Virginia McClain’s brain (in a nonviolent way). Thanks for chatting with me!

First, why don’t you tell me a little bit about your books?

“Because I’m terrible at telling people about my books! Ahem. But I’ll try. 🙂

I have two main series. My Victoria Marmot series, which is humorous urban fantasy with a dash of parody, and my Gensokai series, which is epic fantasy set in a fictional society (on a fictional planet) that draws a lot of inspiration from feudal Japan. Or at least the first two books are epic fantasy. The third book, which I’m working on currently, is more low fantasy adventure than epic fantasy (although it leads into an epic arc so…). I guess it’s complicated. 

The Victoria Marmot series is complete, with five short books in total, and The Chronicles of Gensokai series is ongoing, with two books out already, one coming in Spring of 2021 and many more to come after that. However, so far, each of the Gensokai books can be read as a standalone. There are no cliffhanger endings in the Gensokai series and you don’t have to read the books in the order they were published, although that’s probably the best way to enjoy them in terms of lack of spoilers. The Victoria Marmot series on the other hand is absolutely sequential, full of cliff hangers, and should be read in order or it will probably fail to make sense. (It’s available as a convenient omnibus for that very reason.)”

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

“There have always been stories in my head. I’ve been reading since I was very little.  My mom read to me a ton as a baby and toddler, and then as soon as I learned to read on my own I disappeared into books as often as I could. But a lot of the stories I read when I was little featured, well, dudes. And, while I enjoyed those stories, I always wanted the main characters to be… well me, at least when I was young. I later realized that I didn’t care if the books featured me or not, but that I wanted them to feature more women in general, but to start with, as a kid, I just wanted to be the main character in all my favorite books.

So, for every book I read and enjoyed my brain would start rewriting the story with ME in it. Then I’d start rewriting the stories to change other things that I thought could be better and… well, the first fantasy stories I wrote featured hedgehogs and dragons and were scribbled in barely legible crayon (so they definitely didn’t feature me yet, but hedgehogs and dragons were my favorite animals at the time, so it was an extension of me, in a way). I still have those (thanks, Mom). 

As to why fantasy? I think I’ve always been drawn to fantasy because I have always wanted very strongly to believe in magic despite being a firm believer in science. I do subscribe to the idea that sufficiently advanced science is basically magic to those who don’t know how to explain it, and thus sci/fi and fantasy have always been where my imagination takes me. I also love how sci/fi and fantasy allow us to explore some of the hardest philosophical questions through digestible fiction and make us think far outside our own experiences. “

Do your books change a lot between their inception and the final draft?

“Yes and no. It really varies from project to project. Blade’s Edge, which was the first book I published, was the fourth draft of the third book I ever wrote. The original draft was about 120,000 words long and, while the final draft was 110,000 words or so, the percentage of words in the final draft that were also in the first draft was probably around 10%. That said, the overall arc was pretty much the same. There were just a number of characters who were added or removed or consolidated and a few subplots that got completely wiped out, and one or two that merged and… you get the idea. 

I often rewrite an entire scene from scratch when it comes to my final draft, even if I’m not changing anything major in the scene. For example, if I read over a scene from the first draft that feels clunky, instead of trying to rearrange it to make it flow, I often prefer to just start from scratch. The end result may be as much as 50% the same as the first draft, but I won’t have kept anything because I was feeling precious about it, but rather because it was good enough that I wrote it twice. 

In terms of projects that didn’t change as much, I didn’t have to make nearly as many changes through the five books of the Victoria Marmot series, and those books wound up being much closer to their first drafts. Probably around 75% of the first draft of each of those wound up in the final draft. I’ll be interested to see how this latest book I’m writing goes, because my process seems to be different for every book and I am not particularly good at predicting how much things will change until I’m actually in the revision stage. 

I will say, I generally consider first drafts as my opportunity to tell myself the bare bones of the story, figure out my characters and world, and get familiar with the voice and pacing. Once my first draft is done, I take some time to think about the story as a whole, in order to figure out what needs to be tightened up, and what needs to be cut to make sure that I don’t have any repeat scenes, redundant characters, or events that don’t really move the plot forward. From there I cut, add, and rearrange as necessary, and at the same time, I go through each scene and make sure that I actually describe the setting and characters at the start of every scene change. (I have a strong tendency to completely skip scene settings and character descriptions in first drafts–I know what everyone looks like and where everything is! Why take time to describe everything?–Um, maybe because it’s your damned job to make sure that people reading the book know what the heck is going on, Virginia?)”

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

“Hate to sound like a broken record, but it depends on the project! Victoria Marmot absolutely the started with a character and specific scene and I developed the rest out from there. Blade’s Edge, on the other hand, started with a world and a magic system. Then I added an oppressive regime and finally, after that, the MCs. That’s a big part of why so much was cut from the first draft to the final draft in that book. I did a ton of world building and character development on the page instead of in my notes! That is not the right place for that kind of thing. No reader needs to know every detail of all the secondary characters’ backstories etc, even if I do. However, that draft was an exercise in detailed world building (it was only my third book!) and I wasn’t organized enough to make separate notes so it all just came out in the story. Which was fine, that’s what first drafts are for. To save myself time, I have learned to do detailed world building and character notes FIRST, and then start writing the story after that. I guess the one thing that is consistent is that I tend to discover the details of the plot by actually writing the book, even if I outline the broad strokes first (beginning, middle, end). So far, I’ve either started with a world or a set of characters, and so I want to say that’s my normal. But it’s absolutely possible that for some future story I will come up with a plot first and the world and characters after. Never say never.”

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

“Mostly not. Usually, I give my main characters one trait/hobby/interest that I share with them, because it gives me a nice point of connection with them. However, that’s generally the limit. 

That said, the closest I’ve come to basing a character on myself is that I gave Victoria Marmot my voice, and my sexuality, both of which are pretty personal. She speaks a lot like I did in high school, and she’s bisexual, as I am. However, I also tried to modernize her a bit (it’s been a decade or two since I was 17 after all), and I also gave her a number of personality traits that we don’t share because, when all is said and done, she is NOT me. But, one of the tropes I play with in that whole series is the self-insert nature of a lot of urban fantasy. The series is written in first person and, as part of my voice, I gave Vic my sense of humor and tendency to joke when nervous. So, I’ve had a lot of people who know me personally tell me she reminds them of me. I also gave her my initials, just to be cheeky. But again, she’s not me, and she’s not even based on me, she just shares more of my traits than any of my other characters.”

What was the hardest character or part to write?

“Any time my characters die. I hate writing deaths of characters I’ve spent so many months/years getting to know and love. Also, scene and character descriptions. I think I mentioned earlier how I forget them most of the time in the first draft and have to go back and add them later? I am terrible at them. Which is to say, I work very hard to make them ok in revisions, and then feel like a fraud when anyone compliments my writing for them.”

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

“I borrow a lot from popular fantasy games and movies, as well as various mythologies, but I usually put my own twist on them. Mostly, I just let my characters describe what they’re seeing and write it down. Sounds a bit hands-off, but honestly, it’s rare that I design a fantasy creature in advance, it’s usually just “Oooh, look at that. WTF is that?” and then I write it down.”

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

“Both are fun, but villains are often more fun. That said, they are also often harder to write than heroes simply because every time I try to give a villain a complicated backstory, I wind up struggling to keep from making them a secret hero. Whoops!”

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

“I absolutely cannot pick a single favorite book. However, I can give you a handful of favorites. Graceling by Kristen Cashore is one of my favorites of all time. Also, Trail of Lightning (The Sixth World series) by Rebecca Roanhorse, and the Shades of Magic series by V.E. Schwab. Also, during the pandemic I have been reading a lot of T. Kingfisher’s fantasy romance books, because they are pretty lighthearted and fun, and they are a nice stress free distraction from a world of chaos.”

Short Bio:

Virginia McClain is an author who masqueraded as a language teacher for a decade or so. When she’s not reading or writing she can generally be found playing outside with her four legged adventure buddy and the tiny human she helped to build from scratch. She enjoys climbing to the top of tall rocks, running through deserts, mountains, and woodlands, and carrying a foldable home on her back whenever she gets a chance. She’s also fond of word games, and writing descriptions of herself that are needlessly vague.

Self-published fantasy authors: an interview with T.K.P. Sternberg

I’m excited to talk to T.K.P. Sternberg, author of The Singing Gold, today. Thanks for taking time to answer my questions!

First, why don’t you tell me a little bit about The Singing Gold?

“The Singing Gold is the first in a series of maybe four or five novels following the reluctant adventures and tribulations of a poor family living on the very borders of a deep, wild forest. As a fantasy novel, I am sure it is not very typical. My heroes get pulled into something complicated and dangerous not from some urge to save the world or because they are fated to. They are much more already in a precarious situation, which makes it hard for them to say no or to back off when trouble comes knocking. It was important to me that my characters felt like real human beings living in a very real world, fantastic as it is. I love both fantasy and history with a passion, and with a highly critical mind.

            When I started writing, the one thing I wanted to avoid was tropes and stereotypes. As a matter of fact, I am quiet the stereotypical hater of stereotypes. This goes for the motivations and emotional life of my characters, for the world they inhabit, and for the events and accidents turning their everyday existence fraught enough to validate writing a book about them. If I would guess, I would say that The Singing Gold will be best enjoyed by people who have read a lot of speculative fiction and who wish for something a bit refreshing. For readers new to the genre, I admit that I might not be the best start, as I do my best to withhold at least the cheap and easy rewards that the genre promises.”

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

“I’m a Swede who grew up in the 80’s loving table top RPGs and whatever Fantasy was available at that time. Back then, there was a lot of negative pressure from the mainstream, labelling SFF as just for kids or as trash, and sometimes even as dangerous. But I loved my roleplaying games. I usually ended up being the DM, and after a few years I realized that one of the greatest joys was in the actual writing of the adventures and worlds I prepared for our sessions. I guess that is when I started writing. Whatever the format, be it trying your hand at fiction, bantering and gossiping with friends, or making up a scenario for a game, the urge for telling stories is age old and probably in our genes. I was lucky enough to discover it early on, but unfortunate enough to allow myself to be swayed from what I had started with so much playfulness and joy.

            As I slowly emerged from my teenage years and started studying, among other things a very nice one-year creative writing course at a community college, I was steadily herded towards more ‘serious’ subjects by everyone around me. Since I couldn’t imagine giving up on being playful, I choose to go into Fine Arts instead. I had to find a study place abroad though (again, much too playful and childish for the severe Nordic taste) so I ended up at Goldsmith’s College in London, which turned out to be an amazing couple of years that taught me an endless amount of giving and receiving criticism, of thinking constructively about art, of writing and discussing. Goldsmith’s was above all a place where you learned to think as an artist, and I have found this skill highly transferable and useful.

            So now I make my living as a conceptual sculptor, crafting weird and beautiful objects for the wealthy, and sometimes as a tinkerer, craftsman or whatever needs be to get the money in. I live in Berlin since about a decade now, enjoying the closest thing you get to the Paris of la belle Epoque in this globalized hyper-economy of ours. I started clawing back writing and making it entirely mine a couple of years ago. Looking back on it now, I am grateful for having taken such a roundabout detour to it, past a lot of struggles and joys in another art form. It has helped me get straight to the core of what I want to do. And to enjoy it in a relaxed way.”

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

“I only start thinking seriously about a story when I get a good idea for a premiss. These come a bit as and when they want to. I am one of those people who could have vouched for the existence of the Muses had I not been such a thorough non-believer in anything. They do speak to me however, and when and what they want to.

            Next comes some of the characters, the main people this premiss revolves around, and a few basic plotlines. I then slowly digest the main ingredients for a while, working on something entirely different and preferably for quite some time. If they survive this ordeal and come out the other side, they are worth taking a closer look at. And surprisingly enough, they always seem to have gained in weight by then. By this stage I start taking notes, still while working on something different. I very seldom sit down and plot. Instead, I wait for the story to whisper to me while my frontal cortex is occupied with something ‘important’, and thus forgets to intervene and mess everything up. When I feel that I have a good first look at the main characters, and know roughly where they are standing and in what direction I want to send them off, I simply start writing. I never have more than at the tops a quarter of the story ready in my head before I start. But I also wouldn’t start with just a cool character and a setting.

            I am very much a believer in letting the characters and the world guide you along. My job is to throw things in the way of the characters and then observe how they deal with it. This all sounds a bit esoteric, but is in fact the opposite. If I would give a rational explanation to it, it would run something like so:

            Anything can happen in a story as long as it is consistent with the story itself. When the story starts out, few things are set down, so the freedom but also the insecurity is great. As you go along and write what happens and what your characters do, you get more and more materials to reference your new ideas against. When you think of a way for your protagonist to get past an obstacle, you can check this against what you already know. Would Stig punch the guy and push past? Hardly. As I have written him up to now, he is much to careful for that and would find another way. Merely what you have written down is not enough to make these judgement calls, of course. You have to temper it with your own experience of the world, with what you know and feel about how people act and think. If you lack empathy, you will never be able to write great character driven stories. Also, if you lack curiosity, you will find it hard to describe anyone outside of your own narrow life. But there is always research where experience fails.

            I follow my own rule about internal consistency and honesty to my characters and world with stubborn determination. There are many examples of where my story took a completely different turn than I had thought, simply because I learned some new facts that threw off my plans. This is a good thing. Accepting outer borders and limits helps creativity push further, not the other way around (as I would have thought as a younger man, before all my years in the Arts). I will mention just one instance, to give a feeling of what it can concretely mean while writing.

            At one point fairly early on in the story, a physically weak character sees the threat of a much stronger one approaching. She is holding something small and valuable in her hand which she fears might be taken from her. In the spur of the moment she feeds it to a cow she is herding. I thought this a rather nifty idea for protecting your valuables. The potential bully would now have to drag the whole cow along would he want to get her treasure. And she would only have to keep an eye on the cow’s droppings for a while to get it back. Then I quickly researched how the innards of cows function, to get a good guess of how long my heroine would had to wait, and… Well, anyone with farming expertise will be smiling now. Others will have to read the book to find out. Anyhow, this is an example of how I am more than happy to be forced to rewrite my entire story as long as this makes it more true. Forcing through an idea you just had, no matter how brilliant it is, against the will of your own writing is never a good thing. Listening to where your characters and world wants you to take them is the key to deep and believable writing.”

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

“I drew on a lot of my own experiences to create the main character Stig. He is not necessarily like me in that he is much more shy and hesitant, but in other respects he is. Stig is under constant pressure to provide for his family. As an often struggling artist, this is something I know a lot about. I wanted to integrate the boring part of poverty, that incessant weight of never being able to relax, of never having a backup or a surplus, into how my characters navigate the world. It was important to me that the main motivation be not how to achieve some lofty goals of incredible powers or of fulfilling your destiny, but rather the mundane and very common of making ends meet in a hostile environment. Admittedly, I have turned up the stress level some notches to make for a more dramatic story, but the basic focus is not of achieving but of making do.

            In a way, Stig is the least colourful of the characters in the book. I feel that this is right since he is very much a pair of eyes we can experience the world through. Given his extraordinary abilities of observation, tagging along gives us access to much more than simply the medieval everyday. He is also very calm and balanced, even if he makes some rash decisions. These don’t stem from his personality, however, but much more from the dire circumstances he finds himself in.”

What was the hardest character or part to write?

” It was tricky to flesh out the whole family as distinct and unique characters, as the trouble hitting them pushed in the same direction. The eldest daughter Klara was easy enough, since she embarks on her own escapades early on, but the mother and younger kids simply didn’t get enough specific resistance from the plot do emerge as fully drawn personalities yet. I plan for this to change in the second instalment, as much of the story focus will shift to Liv and how she will have to deal with the fallout of Stig’s failure. As I write almost no backstory, I need things to happen to my protagonists for them to emerge from the fog and become clear.”

I felt immediately drawn into the setting. What did it take to make it seem so complete and rich in historical detail?

“The Singing Gold is written against a very detailed background. The premise for my world is to take the real medieval Europe instead of inventing a quasi-Europe with vaguely disguised countries and regions. But to then populate it with all the beasts and beings from  my favourite mythologies, and the magic and mystery too. And to make it all work in a consistent and believable way.

            Writing within a historically realistic setting and being strict about it is a way for me to set up a framework against which I can bounce my creativity. If I know the world my characters inhabit, it is easier for me to figure out how they should act to solve their problems. Of course it means that I can’t often fall back on the first idea I get, but instead the result feels more solid. I hope. My protagonists didn’t move about on a blank piece of paper slowly filling it out to become a map as they trundled along, but rather started in the middle (not in the lower corner near the coast, as Diana Wynne-Jones so poignantly remark) of one that was there waiting for them.

            This goes for all the small details as well. Meaning, Stig never pulls something from his pockets, since they didn’t have pockets in the 13th century, and Klara ties her tunic together with a string, since neither did they have buttons. And none of the houses is made of huge blocks of stone, since even the king of Svitjod lived in a log house (or rather, in log houses) and only churches had started being built in stone. And no rich lord thunders past in his elaborately decorated coach with liveried servants hanging on to its back, since there were no roads around decent enough that one could drive such a carriage on, at least not in Svitjod. Which despite the perhaps initial doubt made it easier to write and not harder.

            To reach this kind of certainty in my story world, I had to do an inordinate amount of research. Or rather, I did, even if it might not have been all that necessary. Partly it was a way to delay the inevitability of having to start writing, I have to admit, but partly it was to give me a very secure base to stand on. As I continue writing, I am sure I will be more precise and economical with my research, but for The Singing Gold I went a bit overboard.

            It’s also amazing just how much you are able to research when you use the real world for your story. Not only Google Maps is available for you to zoom in on every topographic detail you want, but other resources are even more astonishing. I have to mention here ‘Fornsök’ on the website of Riksantikvarieämbetet (raa.se), the Swedish Archiver General. It has a clickable and zoomable map of Sweden with every single archaeological find marked out. You can search and filter for a number of different categories, or simply get very, very close to the area your protagonists are about to enter to see if there is something interesting there to include in the story. Clicking on the small icons on the map gives you access to photographs and notations done by the field archaeologist responsible for investigating that particular find. That’s how I got the beginning of the anecdote on Vendela and her mound. Vendela’s mound is really there by the way. As is Ottar’s mound, and all the old boat graves around the church. I never visited Vendel in person, but the majestic seven mounds next to the church of Old Upsala, I managed to see.

            Standing on top of the largest mound, the one where Illugi performs his improvised spell to alleviate Stig, while looking down on the old stone church was a truly magical moment. The 11th century church is small. It’s what you would expect from a large village perhaps, not from an entire bishopric. And the huge mounds dwarf it in volume if not in height. A moment like this where I could feel history under the soles of my feet helped me get a perspective on all the history I had read. It helped me decide what interpretations of the finds I would go with. For interpret one must. In history there are precious few facts, but an abundance of traces and relics. How one chooses to read the signs is very much up to you, and says a lot about you. This vagueness is fantastical too. It allows for imagination to happen. The traces of our real lived history provides at best a skeleton which I as an author can dress with my own views, ideas and speculation.”

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


“I find side characters more fun and easy to write than main characters. Since they don’t have to carry the weight of the story forwards, but most often try to get in its way, it allows for freer creation. As for villain and heroes, I think and hope that I have complicated things a bit more than that. I don’t believe in the simple good vs evil dichotomy in real life, so neither do I want it in my fiction. Sure, there are a lot of people out there with truly vicious and caustic behaviours, opinions and beliefs, but none of them are beyond empathy. If someone is a human being, a good author should be able to imagine how it feels to be that person, to live that life and make those decisions.

            The two parts that were most fun to write in The Singing Gold both were kind of rascals: Illugi and Valgeir. One very sophisticated and arrogant, the other charmingly natural and unabashedly selfish. Giving voice to someone not hampered by social norms and morals can, of course, be such a relief and is probably why so many writers love their ‘villains’. I hope it will be even more fun when we get to the non-human opposition in the next book. When we get to know the dwarves better, and start getting real cosy with the creatures of the forest. Because even beasts can’t be merely one dimensional killing machines. That would be boring.”

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

“Writing comes easiest in the morning. For the promise of an undisturbed writing session, I have no trouble getting up at 5. My biggest problem, with a toddler at home and a wife with a busy work-schedule, is finding time to write at all. I am sure this is the boring reality for many writers and other artists. I usually solve this by working frantically at all my other duties until I have a clear slate of a few weeks ahead with at least a couple of free hours each day. That way I can get into writing properly and let it flow, until I have to wrap up for a while and abide the next possible bout.”

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

“I don’t have any books as my all time favourites. I like or don’t like what I read at the moment. This even goes for the heroes of my youth, maybe because I found Fantasy through roleplaying games and not through, for example, Tolkien. When I read Tolkien the first time, I had already gamed with halflings and dwarves and elves.

            What I really enjoy as an adult are authors who manage to surprise me, and at the same time be in total control of their craft. I am very sensitive to inconsistencies and to when the illusion is broken, for example by a vampire behaving like some insecure high-school kid, or by the squire arguing class-identity with his knight. Some writers I have enjoyed very much recently are Angela Boord, Joe Abercrombie, Octavia Butler, Rob J. Hayes, Naomi Novik… All very different but with a distinct and confident style.”

Author Bio:

I’m a Swedish guy who grew up in the 80’s, loving table top RPGs and whatever Fantasy was available at the time. Back then, there was a lot of negative pressure from the mainstream labelling SFF as trash or as just for kids. Sometimes even as dangerous. As I started studying, among other things a very nice one-year creative writing course at a community college, I was steadily herded towards more ‘serious’ subjects by everyone around me. As I couldn’t imagine giving up on being playful, I choose to go into Fine Arts instead of continuing to fight orcs and write sagas. I had to find a study place abroad though (again, much too playful and childish for the severe Nordic taste) so I ended up at Goldsmith’s College in London, which turned out to be an amazing couple of years that taught me endless amounts about giving and receiving criticism, thinking constructively about art, writing and discussing… but not much craft. That was never what Goldsmith’s was about. It is not place where you learn to paint or sculpt as an artist, but a place where you learn to think as one, and I have found this skill highly transferable and useful.

            Since fifteen years, I make my living as a conceptual sculptor, crafting weird and beautiful objects for the wealthy, and sometimes as a tinkerer, craftsman or whatever needs be to get the money in. I have been living in Berlin for about a decade, enjoying the closest thing to the Paris of la belle Epoque that you get in this globalized hyper-economy of ours, I guess. I started clawing back writing and making it entirely mine a couple of years ago. Looking back at it now, I am grateful for having taken such a roundabout way back to it, past a lot of struggles and joys in another art form. It has helped me get straight to the core of what I want to do. And to enjoy it in a relaxed way.

            I am married and have a three year old daughter. I speak English to my wife, Swedish to my daughter and the family back in Stockholm, and German or English to friends and colleagues. English is very much the Lingua Franca of the art world, but it is often so badly mishandled that I sometimes wonder if it shouldn’t be re-named Globish instead, at least as a dialect.

I can be contacted through my website http://tkpsternberg.com/

and my book can be found on Amazon at  http://www.amazon.com/dp/B07T984K3B

or Goodreads at https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/54670943-the-singing-gold

Self-Published Fantasy Authors: an interview with author Zack Argyle

Voice of War by Zack Argyle

Today I am fortunate to be talking with Zack Argyle, author of Voice of War. Thanks for chatting with me!

First, why don’t you tell me a little bit about Voice of War?

“Voice of War is an epic fantasy that was born from a single question: how far will a man go to protect those he loves? It is filled with fantastical creatures, a “bangin’ magic system”, and complex characters that will tear your heart out. Check out Amazon or Goodreads for a full description!”


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

“I know it’s a little silly, but being a Dungeon Master was the first real moment of clarity when I knew I had the talent for crafting stories. I still remember one night in Gauntlgrym when the party had just had a massive battle in the middle of a bazaar. In the middle of the wreckage, a member of the Zhentarim faction approached one of the players, dropped to a knee and whispered, “First Lord.” The entire table gasped, and we ended for the night. I’ll never forget their reaction to the story I’d crafted, and how invested they were. That’s why I write. I want you to love and hate and fear for the characters as I drag you alongside their chaotic lives.”

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

“A little of both. Sometimes it’s a character like Chrys. Sometimes it’s a scene like the opening ritual or the necrolyte races. But the more I write, the more I see the characters above all else.”

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

“Absolutely! As a father of two young children myself, Chrys’ determination to keep his wife and newborn safe comes from knowing just how far I would go to do the same.”

What was the hardest character or part to write?

“For me, it was Iriel Valerian, who is pregnant for the first part of the story and then the mother of a newborn. It took a lot of help from my patient wife to help me write Iriel properly, especially with how she would react in certain situations. In the end, she turned out awesome.”

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

“Well, I should first say that, while there are heroic deeds, Voice of War doesn’t have a “hero”. People are complicated, and even villains can be heroes when seen from another perspective. That said, I really enjoy writing both. There is a villainous torture scene that was incredibly fun to write, and there is a tender moment between a husband and wife that was equally fun to write for completely different reasons.”

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

“Nope! I have two kids and a day job. I used to write on my commute, and now I squeeze it in whenever I can at night. The one constant is that my writing group meets together each Sunday night.”

Are you a “pantser” or a “plotter”?

“90% plotter, 10% pantser…which can get me into trouble. I plot out the main beats to happen in each chapter of the book, and then I let the characters take it from there. Occasionally, the characters go in a different direction than intended, which can lead to revising my plots. But it’s always for the better!”

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

“My favorite fantasy novel is Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson. In the series, magic is only given to those who are “broken”, and power is gained by overcoming that which has broken you. The moments of internal reconciliation are beautiful and powerful and incredibly inspiring.”