Author of ‘Traitor Knight’ loves history when he gets to make it up
Today’s guest is Keith Willis, author of the new fantasy novel “Traitor Knight,” released by Champagne Books on September 7. You can learn more about the novel on its Facebook page.
Malcolm: Welcome to the Round Table, Keith. To keep things reasonably honest, I should confess that I was an English department instructor and you were a student some thirty years ago at Berry College. I wondered then what people did with a degree in English. You said on your website that when you graduated with a double major in English and French, you were best qualified for unemployment benefits. What were your expectations when you first entered college about your career? Somehow, I expected you’d be the editor of a literary magazine.
Keith: Thanks for having me on the Round Table, Malcolm. Where the heck did that 30 years go? Actually, in the interests of full disclosure, it’s closer to 40 years. But I won’t mention that if you won’t.
Malcolm: Keith, at our ages, it’s better to round numbers down rather than up.
Keith: I have to admit my career expectations on entering college were, not to put too fine a point on it, pretty non-existent. I would have loved to snag a job as editor of a literary magazine. Unfortunately supply far exceeds demand there, and the fact is the pay scale probably wouldn’t have cut it anyway. I had some vague ideas about becoming a teacher and even started the sequence for that in college—until the bottom dropped out of the teaching market.
I also had dreams of becoming an attorney, courtesy of way too many Perry Mason re-runs in my youth. But in the cold light of dawn, I knew that wasn’t realistic either, since I really hated public speaking. Thus, with a newly minted degree and a new wife I resorted, as do so many English majors, to “any port in a storm,” which in my case ended up being a career telling other people what to do (also known as Management). But at least the skills I learned at Berry allowed me to boss them around with clarity and conciseness.
Malcolm: A lot of new writers think everything that does into a novel involves sitting at a keyboard and typing. Not that we need a management spreadsheet here, but in terms of time and effort, how much of your work on Traitor Knight was writing vs. research, revising, editing, manuscript submission and planning a marketing strategy.
Keith: I actually got the initial concept for Traitor Knight in October 2008, so almost exactly seven years ago. Once I started writing, it took me roughly fifteen months to produce a first draft (I was working full time as well, and didn’t devote a ton of time for writing). While I didn’t necessarily follow the dictum of “Write drunk, edit sober,” I will say that I just wanted to get a first draft down, and worry about fixing it afterwards.
The book actually started off much more in the romance genre, with a pretty high heat level, but I soon realized that really wasn’t what the story was all about. After reading over what I’d managed to write, I spent the next five years revising and re-writing and actually making it into a story that flowed and made sense. I found that I had lots of great scenes, but they didn’t actually all go together to drive the story forward.
Once I’d done some revisions I started feeling that this was pretty good stuff, and began sending queries to literary agents and editors. As most new authors do, I sent the manuscript out much too soon. Initial responses ranged from a polite “no thank you” to a nervous “why did you send me this ticking bomb draped in deadly cobras—please take it back”. It was honestly pretty awful. But each time I took any bit of feedback I could get, sat down and did another revision, and another, ad nauseum, to try and make the story more readable and attention-grabbing. It took six years and over 80 rejections (I kept a spreadsheet of them) before I snagged a publisher. But you just keep re-writing and revising until you catch the interest of that one individual who’s going to say “Yes!” instead of “Go away.” And as I’m sure you’ve noticed in your own work, no matter how many times you revise and edit and tweak, even after it’s published you still see something that you think “oh, I really should have done this differently”.
Malcolm: What led you to write a knight on a quest fantasy, and did you know early on that your protagonist Morgan McRobbie might have been considered a bit of a loose cannon by Arthur, Lancelot, Galahad and the rest of the Round Table bunch?
Keith: The fantasy genre has always been something that resonated with me. One of my first favorite books was TH. White’s The Once and Future King, and I’m sure this had a lasting influence, as did Tolkien, and the SFF humorist Christopher Stasheff, whose The Warlock in Spite of Himself , filled with romance, adventure, and marvelously awful puns, helped me to see that the genre didn’t have to be quite so serious. Also, I think part of the attraction is that you get to make up your own rules, history, etc.
Malcolm: White’s novel was also one of my favorites.
Keith: When I first came up with the idea for Traitor Knight, I knew I wanted to do something a bit out of the ordinary—to turn the old ‘knight vs dragon’ trope on its head. So I ended up with a dragon suffering from hiccups and a damsel-in-distress who’s fiercely suspicious of her rescuer. The story is really more a swashbuckler with a large dash of wit, and is intended as an homage to all those great old Saturday matinee movies. And I came to realize that, even though Traitor Knight is classified as fantasy, the story relies less on the fantastical elements than in the interplay between Morgan and Marissa. Their characters owe a great deal to a couple of classic British writers: PG Wodehouse and Agatha Christie, who both wrote characters thrown into situations beyond their control and who face their challenges with aplomb and a sense of humor. My two leads clash, but they also engage in banter and barbs and their struggle, together and separately to save the kingdom from an insidious traitor, is what really drives the story.
Malcolm: Looking at this passage, I think Marissa expected a different kind of rescuer:
Keith: Morgan might well have been considered a loose cannon—although in the world I’ve created, cannon haven’t yet been invented—but he’s doing what he must, even at the risk of his honor, his happiness, and likely his life, to safeguard what he holds sacred. Morgan’s motto, as emblazoned on the family crest, translates to “As Need Requires”, and this is a major theme of the book, in that Morgan will do whatever is necessary, by whatever means come to hand, to accomplish his mission.
Malcolm: What kinds of reference materials or web sites did you use to nail down all the knights’ weapons/clothing, foods, customs, structures, horses and tack, viewpoints and customs that were all part of the time period in which the novel is set?
Keith: The great thing about a story like mine is that you’re essentially starting with a blank slate. I tell people “I love history—especially when I get to make it all up”. I would have to say that most of my “research” was from reading heavily in the fantasy genre. I don’t go into a lot of descriptive details of armor, weaponry, etc. in the story. Instead I try to let the reader imagine what those things look like. I did have to come up with a system of magic, and figure out where the dragons came from—but as I mentioned earlier, I don’t really spend an inordinate amount of time going into the nitty gritty of this stuff. The story is really much more about the characters and their conflicts and desires. They just happen to live in a world where magic and dragons (and Dwarves, but we really don’t get to them until Vol. 2) exist.
Malcolm: So, your characters are campaigning for a sequel to Traitor Knight rather than allowing you to write with a different focus?
Keith: Rats! I guess I gave that answer away just now. There definitely is a sequel in the works., although Traitor Knight does actually stand alone. There’s no real cliffhanger that absolutely requires a second or third volume. My hope is more that readers will be engaged by the characters and want to read the next one just to see what they’re up to.
But I initially wrote books one and two as a single volume, then realized just how unwieldy that would be (somewhere in the neighborhood of 750 or so pages). I found a good stopping point for the first book and chopped ‘em in half. The second was pretty much done, but the editing and revisions I’ve ended up doing over the past couple of years have changed a lot of what happens in the sequel. My editor is urging me go get on with it and complete book two (tentatively titled Desperate Knights, and I am working trying to smooth out the rough edges and get all my dragons in a row.
Malcolm: If Hollywood calls you tomorrow to say they’re ramping up for a $100000000000 production of Traitor Knight, who would you pick to play Morgan McRobbie? Seriously, when you were writing, did you see the scenes in your mind’s eye the way they would look in “real life” or in a film?
Keith: Morgan is actually bi-racial—his mother is from an island nation rather like Jamaica, where his father was dispatched on a diplomatic mission (they met while routing a band of particularly nasty pirates, but that’s another story—which I have, actually written). My choice to play Morgan would be Will Smith. I think he’s got the looks, the panache and the charisma to carry off the character. And yes, I did write the story not so much with a film in mind, but definitely from a cinematic perspective—I felt that if my writing evoked that type of visual sense, it would resonate more with readers.
Malcolm: Will Smith will work just fine. Thank you for stopping by the Round Table, Keith. Readers will find Traitor Knight on Kindle
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