A Story for Another Time

So what am I working on these days, and why?

Return with me now on the wings of memory to those dim, forgotten days of the 1990s, when I had but recently left my original home in the ferocious world of publishing, Del Rey Books, to take refuge at Tor. (The previous post explains much of why I made that move.)

When I first arrived at Tor it was with a Big Fat Fantasy novel called Touched By the Gods, which I had planned out originally with the idea of selling it to Del Rey, and which Del Rey had summarily rejected, not because there was anything wrong with the idea, but because I wanted a larger advance than they were willing to pay. To the best of my knowledge the people who decided against buying it hadn’t even read the proposal; they were focused entirely on the money.

The fine folks at Tor had no such qualms — at least, not immediately, though they have, since then, whittled down my advances, little by little. Which is annoying but not unforgivable, since in fact I’ve never yet earned out an advance the size of the one I got for Touched By the Gods. They bought the book, and published it, and that was good, but it left me (and them) with the obvious question, “Okay, now what?”

My intention at Del Rey had been to write another Ethshar novel next, and while bringing the series to Tor was definitely in my plans, and obviously we later managed it briefly, it was too soon. I needed another novel to establish myself first.

I had this idea I’d been mulling over, compiled from several sources, that I thought would do, so I wrote that. The title was Dragon Weather.

That worked just fine. I thought it was a very successful novel, both artistically and financially. It was not, however, especially original as far as the plot went — as many people (including me) pointed out, I’d swiped a lot of the story from Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.

I was hardly the first to swipe from Dumas. Alfred Bester had swiped a lot of the exact same stuff I did for The Stars My Destination, and Steven Brust lifted much of the plot of The Three Musketeers and its sequels for his series that began with The Phoenix Guards. Hey, why not? These are great stories, long since out of copyright and become part of the general culture; some stories (King Arthur, Robin Hood, etc.) get recycled over and over and over.

Anyway, I wrote Dragon Weather and its two sequels, alternating with two Ethshar novels, and when those were done I wrote the Annals of the Chosen, which was a sort of deconstruction of the whole “plucky band of heroes defeats the Dark Lord” idea.

Usually I like to have at least two projects going at once, to keep myself fresh; that was why I alternated SF and fantasy back in the 1980s, and why I alternated Ethshar and the Obsidian Chronicles at Tor. The Annals of the Chosen didn’t alternate with anything, though, because Tor balked — they prefer, for sound marketing reasons, to have each series appear without interruption. I came up with side-projects, such as online serials and The Turtle Moves!, to break up the workload on the Annals of the Chosen, but it was a slog.

For one thing, I’d discovered that the Annals weren’t fun to write. The setting turned out to not be a congenial one for me to work in. I don’t really know why; it just wasn’t. When I’d thought it up it sounded like fun, but it wasn’t. That meant the whole series took much longer to write than it should have, because I faced each day’s work with dread rather than anticipation, and was all too eager to knock off rather than writing just one more page.

So when I finished The Summer Palace, and once again was faced with the “What next?” question, I was determined to write something that was fun to write. Ethshar is fun, but Tor wouldn’t take any more Ethshar stories. So, I asked myself, what else had been fun to write?

Dragon Weather. Dragon Weather had been a joy to write. I loved working on it.

I wasn’t about to go back and extend the series, though; as far as I was concerned, that story was finished. Yeah, I’ve had readers ask for a sequel, but I believe in the adage “Always leave ’em wanting more.” I’d plotted a prequel, Lord Dragon, about how Enziet became what we see in Dragon Weather, but prequels are very tricky, as you need to be extremely careful not to contradict anything in the already-written stories, and it would be a pretty downbeat story, so I didn’t think it was the fun I was looking for. No, I wanted something new.

So what had made Dragon Weather fun?

Well, the slightly old-fashioned style was a kick to write. Having stolen a tried-and-true plot had eliminated a lot of my usual worries, even if I did eventually diverge drastically from Dumas’ original storyline. It was a swashbuckler, and I like swashbucklers.

So maybe I should write another swashbuckler. Maybe I could even swipe a plot from some other classic swashbuckler.

I was mulling that over, but hadn’t really settled on anything, when someone gave me a DVD of the Leslie Howard/Merle Oberon version of The Scarlet Pimpernel.

There was a plot worth swiping!

But the thing is, there’s so much implied background to the story. You need to know the basics of the French Revolution to understand what’s going on, because the narrative never bothers to explain them.

And speaking of the French Revolution, that was background for The Count of Monte Cristo, too, though much less so. And it’s also the background for Sabatini’s Scaramouche, and for the Horatio Hornblower stories (another oft-imitated series I was tempted to swipe). In fact, most of the classic swashbucklers, unsurprisingly, draw on major events in European history.

I don’t want to write historicals. Too much research. Besides, I’m a fantasy writer; I want to use wizards and dragons and magic. But maybe, I thought, I could come up with a setting where I could fit all these classic plots and make them my own. I could put them all into a single series, that could run forever without running out of material. In fact, I could take some of the other plots and projects I had lying around unfinished, and tie them in, too.

What were key events in European history that I wanted to use, and what could I dump? Well, you need the fall of Rome, and the French Revolution, and the expansion of the British Empire, and the Age of Exploration, but you don’t need all that medieval stuff — that’s already been done to death in fantasy. You don’t need Scandinavia at all, or Greece, or Christianity. Oh, sure, they’re hugely important in European history, but I don’t need them for the stories I want to tell.

And I came up with the Good Parts Version of Europe and European history, which, when I was done, really didn’t look much like Europe at all. My Old Empire had its capital in Paris (now called Lume), not in Rome, and was ruled by wizards; it fell in six months, rather than over a period of centuries. The Iberian peninsula is gone entirely; if I need Spain or Portugal later I’ll improvise something. The English Channel became a stony desert inhabited by dragons. The moon is gone. No religious wars as such; the near-universal religion involves a god and goddess and ancestor worship, though there are lots of odd cults kicking around.

The French Revolution is now the Fall of the Sorcerers, when the magicians who rule the Walasian Empire are overthrown.

And I have dozens of stories I want to tell set in the Bound Lands, as my Western Europe analogue is called. I’m not going to follow chronological order for the entire thing, but I’m starting with the Fall of the Sorcerers, and I do want to keep that in chronological order, which means I can’t start with The Scarlet Pimpernel, since that begins with the Terror in full swing. Before I get to that I need to cover the Fall of the Bastille (now the destruction of the Pensioners’ Quarter), and a lot of other stuff. In fact, even the destruction of the Pensioners’ Quarter wound up in the second volume, Above His Proper Station.

Where did I start? Well, A Young Man Without Magic is dedicated to Rafael Sabatini; that’s a clue.

I’m not slavishly following any of the plots I’m swiping; they all twist and mutate as I play with them, and Walasia is very definitely not France. (And if you’ve read Scaramouche, you know there’s a really central plot point that, if I used it, would have people saying I was swiping Star Wars. So I dropped that entirely, and that changes the whole story.)

The feel of the series, though, is still modeled on swashbucklers — Dumas, Sabatini, Orczy, and a thousand obscure pulp authors.

So that’s what I’m doing. I hope readers will have as much fun reading these as I’m having writing them.

11 thoughts on “A Story for Another Time

  1. Does it really count as stealing if you rework the plot into something original? I’m not sure there really is such a thing as a truly new plot these days. Every adventure novel is stolen from Homer (who may have stolen plot material from the Epic of Gilgamesh). It’s all good.

  2. Sure, it’s stealing. It’s just not plagiarism. I mean, if I steal a block of marble and carve it into a statue, I still stole the marble, even if the statue is my own creation.

    Whether there are any new plots or ideas depends on how broadly you define your terms; if you use broad definitions, then no, there aren’t. “Boy meets girl” is an old, old plot; “boy meets girl while they’re both looting the same house after a terrorist attack” is not one I’ve seen before (though it’s probably been done).

    Stolen or not, though, yes, it’s all good. I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. As Lionel Trilling said, “Immature artists imitate. Mature artists steal.”

  3. I have always enjoyed all the books I have ever read from you.
    granted I havent found them. While you may have had a hard time with writting the Annals of the Chosen I have enjoyed reading it.
    I only wish I could afford more books o_O. I havent bought the last one yet because its only avalible in hard bound I have sucha limited book fund (get 2 maybe 3 books or only get one).

    Unfortunatly I lent out my with a single spell and an the misinchanted sword books and again didnt get them back (sigh think I will have to stop lending that series out I never get them back)

    Touched by the gods is a verry good book and I am happy to have it in my library. maybe one of these days if you ever do a book signing in utah I will have to get you sign it šŸ™‚

    out of curiosity who were you with when you wrote the wizard and his war machine series (I liked that one and I can never find it in print now. I had originaly borrowed it from my local library along with the lord of dus series)

  4. Are there any, even overly general or vague, dates when books might start be available for this new series? Fall? Next Spring?

    About how many do you have actively planned at present? Clearly at least two or three, based on the post…

  5. Next year for the first one. Probably later than spring. Book production is a slow business.

    As for how many — I don’t know. I have two under contract, and at least (counts on fingers) five more in various stages of development.

    I did say “dozens” and “run forever,” after all — though in practice, it’ll probably run until Tor stops buying them, however long that may be.

    So here’s what’s planned so far:

    A Young Man Without Magic: Completed and delivered; begins “The Fall of the Sorcerers” (hereafter FotS).

    Above His Proper Station: Complete in very rough draft; under contract. FotS.

    On A Field Sable: Between one-third and one-half written; change in viewpoint and protagonist, but still FotS. Not sold.

    Untrue Names: A couple of chapters written. Different cast, but still FotS.

    [At least a couple of other stories in FotS]

    The Prince’s Return: Plotted, not written, concludes FotS

    Assassin in Waiting: Several chapters written. Not FotS; probably set about a century earlier, though that can be adjusted.

    Swordsmen of the Fallen Empire: Rough outline. Set 600 years before FotS.

    Spellfront: Basic concept and cast, not even an outline. Not FotS; probably set just a few years earlier, though.

    That’s everything that’s gotten as far as having a title that I remember off the top of my head.

  6. “I could put them all into a single series, that could run forever without running out of material.”

    “Iā€™m not going to follow chronological order for the entire thing, but Iā€™m starting with the Fall of the Sorcerers, and I do want to keep that in chronological order”

    “change in viewpoint and protagonist, but still FotS.”

    Hmm…A single fantasy series that can run forever; not following chronological order for everything, but keeping a sub-series in chronological order; with a change in protagonist…. Sounds like you’re stealing an idea from L.E. Modesitt Jr. šŸ˜›

  7. Not hardly. The idea’s been around a lot longer than that. Take a look at J.R.R. Tolkien’s oeuvre, for one thing.

    I know Lee, and he’s a nice guy, but I’m not about to consciously borrow anything from his fantasy series.

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