Write what you know, it’s the first piece of advice a writer will get. It’s sometimes useful too. After eight years and almost a decade as a published novelist, I was starting a new series and so I asked myself what I’d learned, what I liked and what I wanted for the next few years. But this time round I wasn’t some newbie, I was a wise and skilled crafter of words who utters profound witticisms as he works the room of industry types, right?
Much to my disappointment that clearly wasn’t the case. I was pretty much the same damn fool I’ve always been. Well meaning, stubborn not the cleverest, getting on a bit with something of a food preoccupation – not without some skill but not ever likely to be one of the biggest and brightest stars in the sky. So hey, write what you know?
I started to write. There had been an idea in my brain for years about a man waking up in a cell with no memory of how he’d got there. It was intended to be some sort of profound short story about perception and reality I dimly recall, but… well, damn fool remember? I’d never known what to do with it and that was unlikely to change so it became the first chapter of a story I hadn’t yet planned beyond some basics and a desire to write a fun adventure. So a man wakes up hungover in a cell and, without knowing why he’s there, isn’t entirely surprised by this turn of events. He’s a well-meaning man with a tendency towards foolishness, even if he does have some skills too – that was the bare bones, time to start adding the layers.
Novels are often about extremes, whether it’s events or personalities, so clearly his life was going to diverge a long way from my own. Take a dash of something in you and expand it, develop it into something new in its own right. I have a minor problem with authority, or so some have suggested anyway, but being idly stubborn isn’t that interesting to read about. So Lynx got a backstory to explain his problem with authority, something that quickly shaped his personality and turned him into someone new. However, it wasn’t until he changed shape that he became, if you’ll excuse the pun, a properly rounded personality in my mind.
He’d started out generic warrior dude. Google someone like Pierre Spies and you’ll see the basic idea that could fit any number of fantasy novels. I choose a rugby player there because when I gave Lynx the preoccupation with food he didn’t look like that anymore, his shape was more Adam Jones. Not quite so sculpted perhaps, but underestimate the man at your peril.
Having built a backstory I liked, he was looking like he could take himself pretty seriously if I wasn’t careful. Now I’m not averse to serious, but once again, damn fool too, and serious in fiction or real life can be just exhausting. Chucking him in with a bunch of malingering, childish drunks would stop him going down that path, just as having him fall for a woman who might as well be carrying a placard that says “I’m going to be bad for you” would give me all sorts of ways to throw trouble his way.
At this point he was mostly there, but the background threw up another realisation. In the first draft Lynx was worried that he was in a cell, but nothing more. It doesn’t fit with the backstory I developed for him however, one that has profound implications. Again, use a bit of what you know and make it interesting. Moderate clinical depression is nothing like the massive psychological trauma Lynx has suffered – I’m under no illusions about that and I’m bloody grateful for it, but there’s a tiny spark for me to work from. That black dog is something you have to keep an eye out for, it can sneak back at any time if you’re not careful. Lynx recognises that he’s a damaged person, fundamentally changed by what was done to him and he’s never going back to how he was. He’s getting from one day to the next, ignoring the cracks by fixating on something else whether that’s food or injustice. He accepts his problems mean he may not stay in any one place for long, that he may burn most bridges behind him, but he’s coping as best he can rather than railing against his lot. He’s created/adapted a moral code for himself, one that acts as armour to keep him focused and not thinking too hard. He’s accepted one day it’ll likely end up killing him, but in the meantime he might be able to do some good for others. That was the point where I felt I had the sort of hero I wanted – a flawed one who would hardly recognise the word in himself.
Of course, there was someone else who’d also appeared in my thoughts – a woman who was Lara Croft meets Milady de Winter and might just be able to find a use for a strong arm in search of purpose. Before long the series started to be about the both of them, how they worked together and possibly the gulf between them too. After that I just needed to pick a fight with an army so powerful only a bunch of drunken madmen would be up for it.
Tom Lloyd’s latest novel, Princess of Blood is published by Gollancz in July. The first novel in the God Fragments series, Stranger of Tempest is out now, as is Honour Under Moonlight (a novella). He is also the author of the Twilight Reign and Empire of a Hundred Houses series.