Friday, 9 December 2016

Interview with Brian Turner

Today I’m joined for interview by Brian Turner, who is author of the recently released fantasy Gathering (Chronicles of Empire book 1), as well as lord of the SFF Chrons manor (an excellent forum where people into fantasy and science fiction can discuss writing, reading, books, film and so forth).

There’s an ensemble cast rather than a single (or a couple) stand-out POV characters. Why did you choose to go down the route of many POVs, and what did you feel the advantages were?

As some people have noticed, the inspiration for the Chronicles of Empire series came from role-playing games. One huge difficulty was taking that experience and giving it life outside of those limitations.

But if I were plotting and writing from scratch, I would definitely have focused on no more than 3-4 max. The more main characters there are, the more difficult it becomes to pull off successfully.

I found it horribly, horribly, challenging. I was lucky in that I had a great developmental editor in Teresa Edgerton, who wasn’t afraid to tell me when I was going wrong.

The sole advantage of an ensemble cast, though, is that you can tell a more complex yet complete story. That’s why they’re so common in film and TV. But with novels, it requires a disproportionate amount of effort to try and make it work. There’s a clear reason why most books are focused on one main character, even in the presence of a strong supporting cast.

Seven main characters travelling together is the hallmark of a writing genius* but it also somewhat limits the scope of action. Presumably in later books (a bit like the Fellowship of the Ring) the group gets split up for separate adventures?
(*I may have used a very similar approach in Journey to Altmortis).

That already happens to a degree in Gathering, and it will do so to a degree in other books. Ultimately, the story is about how these characters work for and against one another in the longer telling of it.

At no point do I ever think about sending people off on journeys to make the writing easier - such events must make the writing harder because it has to make the story more complex and self-referencing.

A story about an ensemble cast must remain a story about an ensemble cast, and not a collection of individual adventures.

It’s clear from reading the book that you’ve done plenty of research when it comes to historical influences. What particular sources did you find useful for world-building a (mostly) medieval fantasy?

I’ve read a huge amount of history over the past 20 years as research for the Chronicles of Empire series. The aim has always been to use that to make the world of the story seem more real, even if I’m limited with how much world-building I can share.

The big challenge has been to move away from political history and into social history, and focus on the details of daily life that make the everyday experience both extraordinary yet ordinary.

Any good history book will do that, whether it’s second-hand commentators such as Edward Gibbon, John Julius Norwich, Terry Jones, Ian Mortimer, Francis and Joseph Gies; or first-hand sources, such as Thucydides, Polybius, Tacitus, Suetonius; and outstanding historical fiction and fantasy fiction writers such as Colleen McCollough, Ken Follet, Bernard Cornwell, Robert Fabbri, George R R Martin, Joe Abercrombie, David Gemmell ... and so on and so on.

Pedantic classical question: you made the chariot teams yellow, blue, green and red, like Rome. Except Rome had a white team rather than a yellow. Any reason for the difference?

Simply because it made all the colours primary ones. And while I’ve used history as a great source for inspiration, it made no sense to simply repeat everything if I found it better to personalise it.

A good example is that I abandoned the Theory of the Humours from ancient and mediaeval medicine, and replaced it with a colour-based theory of philosophy. This is why prime colours became all the more important, and why changing the whites to the yellows was more consistent with the worldview I’d created.

Although largely fantastical, there’s also a sci-fi element. Why did you opt for this, as opposed to going for a fantasy-only approach?

Simply because I hate the way that thousands of years of ritual folk magic has become abused by the modern fantasy genre. It’s no longer treated with any respect, and instead largely appropriated for simple power fantasies. Ironically, it’s RPGs that have driven this development.

So my first act with writing about my own RPG adventures was to invoke Clarke’s law about suitably futuristic technology being indistinguishable from magic. That way, any element relating to RPG magic could be swapped out for future technology.

I wrote a science fiction novel based on the same world, set 2,500 years in its future, then connected their stories. That forms the core plot arc in the Chronicles of Empire series.

Then, in the character development process, I gave each of the seven main characters their own individual belief system and developed it accordingly. There is magic in Gathering - but it’s based on real-world ritual magic, with the personal and social meaning it’s meant to have.

The Gathering is the first book of the Chronicles of Empire series. Do you know how many entries there will be, or have an approximate schedule of releases in mind?

I’ve posted something about that here: About the Chronicles of Empire series. There are 6 books in the core Chronicles of Empire series, with potentially as many as two trilogies that will support and complete this.
However, the writing needs time to grow properly. With only one character, an author just has to get a character from A to B. With seven characters, everyone is transecting each other’s scenes and development arcs. It requires time to consider and account for the effects of this on each one, as well as plot and continuity.

I suspect it’s going to take about 2 years to write each book, but I won’t rush to release anything I’m not happy with. Conversely, I won’t allow the story to stray and meander either. I have a very clear sense of focus, but not everything comes into view immediately.

Being vague, the ending is a natural break point in the story. Will the sequel continue immediately afterwards or (my guess) will there be a few months/years interval?

The story does continue shortly after, but the structure for the second Chronicles of Empirebook, Awakening, is going to be very different. Gathering takes place over just 6 days, but Awakening must cover around 3-4 years. That’s going to be a tough sell for a character-driven story, even with its far more pronounced emotional highs and lows.

Away from writing, how do you like to relax?

My social outlet has been the chronicles forums SFF Chronicles - science fiction and fantasy forums, and it’s also been a great place for critical feedback, as well as meeting some truly wonderful people.

I also read a ton of books, about 2:1 fiction to non-fiction. I’ve been making a big point to read different genres, and outside of my preferred topic areas. I figure anyone who wants to be a good writer needs to do that.

I’m especially enjoying the thriller genre at the moment, and the way the writers there focus on being concise while driving pace. When I’m burned out from reading I always pick up a Lee Child novel.
I’ve also discovered some amazing hybrid authors - those with normal publishing deals, but also self-publish - who write exceptional and polished cross-genre novels, such as Jo Zebedee and Ralph Kern.

There's also a book called Kingdom Asunder by a writer named Thaddeus White I need to read as well. [Sounds like the sort of splendid book everyone should buy – TW].

Beyond the next books in the Chronicles of Empire, what are your writing plans for the future?

Chronicles of Empire is going to keep me very busy for a long time. There’s so much I could cover outside of the main story. If I’m lucky, the Universe will grant me time enough to write a WWII thriller series after all that.

Thank you for having me.

Brian G Turner

The pleasure was all mine,


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