Author of ‘Traitor Knight’ loves history when he gets to make it up

Willis

Willis

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.

This Berry College walkway is suitable for knights, real or imagined. - M. R. Campbell photo

This Berry College walkway is suitable for knights, real or imagined. – M. R. Campbell photo

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.

traitorcoverKeith: 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 knightsay “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:

knightexcerpt

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?

Campaign Books

Champagne Books

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?

A prospective Morgan McRobbie?

A prospective Morgan McRobbie?

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

You may also like: Briefly Noted: ‘Traitor Knight” by Keith Willis

 

Just starting out? Beware of Magical Realism

Once upon a time, when teachers said “You can’t do XYZ in your writing,” I listed famous authors who did it all the time. The teachers’ responses were all the same: “When you’re famous you can do that.”

MRbloghop2015Some publishers also have this theory and, I’ll stipulate that they’re not totally wrong. If you’re thinking about magical realism as your prospective genre of choice, be careful. Some publishers abhor the label and claim it’s merely an uppity name for fantasy and/or that it means the author has “literary fiction pretensions.”

In general, except when we’re talking big names and/or big advertising budgets, fantasy finds more readers than magical realism and commercial fiction finds more readers than literary fiction (or fiction perceived as literary).

What happens if you’ve written a magical realism novel? Don’t let the publisher sell it as fantasy. Fantasy readers expect certain things. Most genre readers do. So, if your magical realism novel is slotted into the fantasy genre, it probably won’t sell. Readers will either be disappointed or stay away in droves. Others will post negative reviews that are hard to survive.

It’s a catch-22 thing. Yes, magical realism is typically listed as a subset of fantasy. That’s a mistake, but “they didn’t ask me.” Magical realism uses magic that the characters don’t see as unusual or out of place in a setting that is otherwise very realistic. Fantasy readers aren’t going to buy that as fantasy. So, what do you do?

I guess if HarperCollins has given you a $100,000 advance, you keep your mouth shut. Otherwise, get another publisher or publish the book yourself. Or, if you want a slightly easier career, you might consider writing fantasy and then shifting into magical realism before you become to typecast as a fantasy writer only.

Three of my novels are out of print because the publisher not only sold them as fantasy but removed the more subtle magical realism in favor of the more overt magic of fantasy. I don’t have the stamina to re-write them. Of course, they might have been a dead horse: they might have crashed and burned no matter what genre we put them in.

I love the art and craft of writing and that means I write about the world the way I see the world. I see the subtle workings of magic in daily life. Am I a shaman? Am I psychic? Am I crazy? Am I in need of stronger medications?

Who cares?

breathoflifeThe late, highly creative Brazilian author Clarice Lispector (“A Breath of Life”) said, “I write as if to save somebody’s life. Probably my own.” Now that’s true of most of us who write. The reader doesn’t care whether we’re crazy as long as they’re getting a wonderful story.

Only you know how your writing ends up the way it does. That’s between you and your muse. Sure, others can help you make it better. They’re called editors and publishers (if you pick the right ones). But when the cows finally come home–and they will–you have to be happy with it because it is a part of you.

If you see magic in the world, don’t let anyone else say that you don’t and turn your novel into something it isn’t. You have to be who you are and let the spirits and spells fall where they may.

–Malcolm

 

–Malcolm

This post is part of the Magical Realism Blog Hop. About twenty blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (29th – 31st July 2015) these blogs will be posting about magical realism. Please take the time to click on the button above to visit sit them and remember that links to the new posts will be added over the three days, so do come back to read more.The button should go live on or after 12:01 a.m. July 29th.

 

KIndle cover 200x300(1)Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” a magical realism novella folk magic in the Jim Crow era of the Florida Panhandle where granny and her cat take on the Klan.

Hope – the candle within otherwise dark tales

“At the heart’s core of fantasy literature lies the infinite possibility of dreams. Whether it presents alternate worlds in outer or inner space, alternate forms of life beyond humanity, alternate realities beyond our own, this genre speaks not to the limited self but to the limitless spirit. The well from which it draws its inspiration – be it established myth or the capacity for myth-making – is that which Joseph Campbell calls ‘the lost forgotten living waters of the inexhaustible source.’”
O. R. Melling

Bad things happen to good people every day. We cannot deny this. Good things happen, too, but when they happen too often in fiction, the author is likely to be criticized for his or her story’s Hollywood ending.

One of the reasons I read and write fantasy literature is, as Melling says, the hint that no matter how dark the tale, dreams contain infinite possibilities.

I don’t think this means fantasy is escapist fiction or that it helps people deny reality. I’d rather say that it helps readers nurture the innate glimmer of hope that burns (or, perhaps, hides) within every human heart.

When we read about real-life heroes in the news, their heroism not only says something about their values but about the fact that they defied an apparently hopeless reality and changed it. News stories about animals being saved from icy ponds and raging rivers, about platoons that make it back to headquarters from a hellish battle, and first responders who rescue people from burning buildings tend to catch our attention and turn into the things we share with friends on Facebook or around the dinner table.

Life is, I think, fueled by hope, and so it is that stories in the newspaper and the TV evening news about hope fulfilled resonate with us. This is the key to fantasy literature that people read and re-read and talk about.

Perhaps we think, “If the real person in the news item or the protagonist in the story can conquer an obstacle, so can I.”

As authors, our primary role is telling a good story, not making people feel good about themselves and their future. But for those of us who agree with Melling that “as long as the spirit is intact, nothing is broken irreparably,” writing fantasy is a natural outgrowth of the way we see the world.

When he “get the story right,” our readers feel that way, too, by the time they get to the end of the book.

Malcolm

Perhaps we’ve lost too much of the magic

“‘The ancient world was full of magic,’ writes novelist C.J. Cherryh.  ‘Most everyone north and northwest of the Mediterranean believed that standing barefoot on the earth gave you special knowledge, that the prickling feeling at the back of your neck meant watchers in the wood, and that running water cleansed supernatural flaws.'”

–On Myth and Magic in Terri Windling’s post

Since we, as a world, have grown up, most people no longer believe this; or, if they do, they don’t admit it.

Ignorant superstition or pagan religion: that’s how such ideas are often categorized.

fantasyartIn one of my novels, I said that we’d exchanged magic and wonder for science and technology. Goodness knows, there have been benefits to some of that. But it seems a little skewed to me.

Too little magic. Too much technology. Some say, that our technology will one day rule us (literally, not figuratively as it does now) and will become so self-aware that it (the computers and machines) will decide that humans are no longer needed.  Kind of like the Terminator movies.

I’m subversive when it comes to magic. I put it in my fantasy novels where it seems almost natural enough to be real. I hope some readers think it’s real by the time they finish the books. If not that, I hope they are willing top ponder the question of its reality with open minds.

Perhaps we’ve most too much of the magic because we never believed enough in ourselves as individuals. Did we assume scientists, inventors, governments and corporations knew more about everything than we did? Did we see ourselves as too small to trust what our hearts suggested to us?

Hard to say. The magic discussion can get very circular because it’s often said, you won’t find magic if you don’t believe in it. That may be true, but it’s also convenient because it’s a false method of trying to prove a point.

Maybe we don’t have to believe in magic to find it. Maybe all we have to do is entertain the possibility that it’s there. It’s not too difficult to walk barefoot across a field or a beach and see what happens. Naturally, doing that with our arms crossed and our minds cynical isn’t going to help. Better to play. To dance there or enjoy the scenery with all of our logic on hold.

In my stories, I suggest magic is there waiting for characters to see it. Some do, some don’t. Maybe those who see it are crazy fools, but what if they’re not? If we dismiss things out of hand, we’ll never know.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the upcoming folk magic novella “Conjure Woman’s Cat.”

Review: ‘The Kingdom of the Sun and Moon’

The Kingdom of the Sun and Moon, by Lowell H. Press, Parkers Mill Publishing (September 10, 2014), Ages 10 and up, 316 pages.

Starting with the cover, this is a beautifully crafted book.

Starting with the cover, this is a beautifully crafted book.

Lowell H. Press has written an inventive novel about a hierarchy of mice living in the gardens and secret interior spaces of a castle inspired by the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, Austria.

The colony’s king cares little for his subjects and is mostly interested in taking the food they save throughout the year for his own use during the winter months.Two brothers, Sommer and Nesbit, discover that all is not what it seems, including the king’s purported fear of a pending invasion of the colony by a massive army of woodland mice.

Sommer, who is drafted by the king’s minions for a suicide mission on the colony’s behalf and Nesbit, who insults the king and flees into the dangerous forest, take different approaches to survival and justice. Sommer becomes a cadet commander, while Nesbit becomes known as either a worker of magic of an exceptionally lucky mouse.

Set in a 1700s world, The Kingdom of the Sun and Moon is a delightful story with well-drawn characters and an underlying culture and myth that will charm young readers while keeping their parents engaged whenever this derring-do yarn is shared around the dinner table or at at bedtime.

Press used his visit to the Schönbrunn Palace to great advantage in developing a setting for his story that is well suited to the mice colony’s culture and history as well as to the people and cats who appear throughout the tale for better or worse.

Sommer and Nesbit of the Long Meadow Colony are tiny, as mice go, but they make up for it in bravery and guile.

–Malcolm

Hello Florida Readers: Need fantasy, magic and ghosts?

One of my contemporary fantasy novels, three paranormal short stories and a collection of three folk tales have Florida settings. I grew up in Tallahassee and explored most of the state’s panhandle, so I enjoy going back for story locations.

  • The Seeker: (Tallahassee, Panacea, Carrabelle, Tate’s Hell Forest) – Contemporary fanntasy novel about a perfect love gone horribly wrong between a young man from Montana and a young woman from Carrabelle who meet on a summer job in Montana’s Glacier National Park. Misunderstandings arise after the young woman is assaulted on a dark, Tallahassee street.

    Paperback, Kindle and Audiobook, and they are family friendly.

    Paperback, Kindle and Audiobook, and they are family friendly.

  • Emily’s Stories: (Tallahassee, St. Marks) – This three story set of magical paranormal stories features a 14-year-old girl who talks to ghosts and birds to solve problems. She doesn’t want a housing development in her favorite woods, sees a bear stalking her father on a Montana vacation, and wonders why her grandmother loves the sweetbay magnolia tree in her back yard so much. The audiobook was narrated by actress Kelley Hazen who makes you feel like you’re right there in the stories.
  • Cora’s Crossing (Marianna) – In this paranormal story, two college students driving home on a stormy night find their route oddly detoured across an ancient, haunted bridge north of Marianna. What they find there, and the danger it gets them into, will make them truly believe that Bellamy Bridge is haunted. The bridge, which is still there, is closed to vehicles but can be reached by a trail.
  • Moonlight and Ghosts (Tallahassee) – An abandoned and purportedly haunted mental hospital attracts the attention of a young man who used to work there. Something or someone wants him to return and, as it turns out, solve a crime in progress. Needless to say, this is a paranormal story, but it also ties into my experiences years ago as a manager at a center for the developmentally disabled.
  • Spooky Stories (Marianna, Tallahassee) – This two-story set bundles “Cora’s Crossing” and “Moonlight and Ghosts” together in one volume. This edition is also available as an audiobook.
  • Kindle and Audiobook

    Kindle and Audiobook

    The Land Between the Rivers (Tate’s Hell Forest) – This three-story set of folktales features Panther, Snakebird and Bear at the dawn of time as they make their way through the wetlands and flatwoods between the Apalachicola and the Ochlockonee rivers. I camped and hiked throughout this area when I was growing up, so it’s a favorite of mine–one that still needs the determined efforts of those protecting Florida’s endangered species of plants and animals in the state’s at-risk ecosystems.

  • My work in progress is a folk magic story set in Liberty County in the 1950s. The characters include a conjure woman, her cat, her customers, and some really nasty people who need to be jinxed. More on this later.

Malcolm

New Personal Note: The HVAC Georgia Summer Blues

On location: Glacier Park’s Iceberg Lake

I used Glacier National Park’s Iceberg Lake in “High Country Painter,” of the three short stories in my family-oriented e-book/audio book Emily’s Stories.

Where Is It?

icebergmapIceberg Lake is a 5.9- mile hike from Many Glacier Hotel on the east side of Montana’s Glacier National Park. The lake, which is frozen over during the winter months, is named for the chunks of ice that float in it throughout the summer. It’s one of the most popular trails in the area.

En route to the lake from the hotel, the elevation increases 1,200 feet, however most of the uphill sections of the trail are gradual. For those who haven’t yet gotten used to the elevation or long walks, the hike provides a half-day of exercise.

In his book The Best of Glacier National Park, Alan Leftbridge lists Iceberg Lake as one as one of Glacier’s seven best day hikes. His level of difficulty for the hike is moderate. Hiking in Glacier calls the hike strenuous. (I guess it depends of whether or not one is out of shape!) If you don’t have a hiking guidebook, this web site provides a good overview of the trip.

How I Used it In the Story

Trail to Iceberg Lake - Photo by GlacierGuyMT

Trail to Iceberg Lake – Photo by GlacierGuyMT

Young Emily Walker and her family travel from Florida to Glacier National Park for a family vacation. She accompanies her father on the hike while her mother spends the day around  the hotel. Since she occasionally talks to birds and spirits, she knows something unusual will happen at the lake.

Why I Used the Lake

Iceberg Lake

Iceberg Lake

Emily and her father are used to the sinkhole lakes and blackwater rivers in the Florida Panhandle. I wanted to put them into a new environment. The arête in the picture is called the Garden Wall and it not only provides a lot of ice and snow to look at, but frequent mountain goats as well.

The lake sits in a cirque, a carved-out bowl left by ancient glaciers, and since it’s such a popular spot, hikers will  almost always find ground squirrels and chipmunks there begging for food. The lake sits in bear country, so it’s always good to check with the rangers for to see if there have been any grizzly bears in the area before you begin your hike.

The hike also features many wild flowers as well as some very different views of the mountains than one sees from the hotel. There are good views of many rock formations and other features of glaciation,

The first mile of the hike is on the paved road that connects the hotel complex to the camp store and the campground; park your car at the store to save a bit of walking.

Excerpt from Emily’s Stories

Available on Kindle and as an audio book

Available on Kindle and as an audio book

The horizon was hidden by a grey wall of rock which, according to the pack, also concealed incoming storms; now, carrying rain jackets on a sunny day made sense. By the time they passed the noisy waterfall and strolled through lacey-white bear grass (without bears) and scattered Indian paintbrush that gentled the grey rock (“limestone,” her dad said, descriptively), Emily was ready for lunch.

Deep snow lay hard-packed around the lake’s far shore where the limestone wall created a playground for mountain goats running across their grey and white world as nimbly as Southern chameleons ran along the Walters’ brick house. Sunny Florida was, as advertised, sunny and hot, but here deep summer had only melted the ice off half of the lake’s surface.

“I am astonished,” said Emily, dropping her knapsack on the ground and running down to the water. The water was as cold as it looked.

“Punkin, ‘astonished’ is a new word for you,” her dad said. He knelt down and splashed water over his
face.

Summing Everything Up

My teenaged protagonist talks to birds and spirits, so her stories are always set outdoors. Like other visitors to the hotel, the hike to the lake is one she would probably take. It provides great scenery for Emily to experience with her father as long with the possibility a bear might appear.

I worked at the hotel as a bellman for two summers and walked up to this lake many times. Using it in the story is an example of a writer writing what he knows.

Malcolm