Tales of High Adventure...

In January, I managed to write more than a hundred thousand words; this time, it was only just over forty thousand, well short of my target. I managed to catch the flu, which didn’t help - I can work through the flu, but I can’t think through it, and that’s a bit of a problem when you are trying to come up with something new! I did manage to finish up ‘Take and Hold’ fortunately, which is now in the editing stage; it will be out on the 25th of March, if all goes according to plan. (Don’t forget I have a mailing list if you want to be the first to know when it comes out.)

The big question is what comes next, of course, and I won’t lie when I say I’m not sure. I want to have the next Alamo book written in plenty of time - it’s nice to not be under the gun quite so much, and I did two back-to-back in order to buy myself a month’s leeway. There’s a good chance that I’ll end up doing the next Alamo book as my next project, starting in a few weeks’ time - whatever happens, that book will be on sale by the end of May.

There is another option, however. One of my primary goals for this year is to get a second string to my bow, and as far as I can see it, I have two options here. The first is a second science-fiction series, possibly based on the High Frontier notes I’ve been doing, possibly something else; I’m resisting simply doing a second military science-fiction series for obvious reasons, though I have got a few ideas tucked away for a rainy day. The other option is to work in another genre, and I won’t deny that this is a tempting idea.

A few of you will remember the sword and sorcery novel I wrote last year, Swords of the Damned; I was happy enough with it, but I’ve never really had the impetus to write a second book in the at series - though that doesn’t mean I’m necessarily done with fantasy, and certainly there is a long and honorable history of science-fiction authors writing fantasy. (I seem to remember a guy called Martin…) When I was role-playing regularly, I often felt most at home in the fantasy genre, so there is certainly a legacy there to remember - and that’s something else I want to get back to in the near future, actually.

I’ve been doing some outlining in the last week or so, but I always run into the same trouble when I am plotting out fantasy. Fantasy. That might seem strange, but I have difficulty incorporating the fantastic into my stories. I came up with an epic-scale outline, but it derailed in my head when I tried to work out where to put the magic, the strange beasts, the sorcery. I know that I’m not alone in this, and the original idea for A Song of Ice and Fire was actually dragon-less, interestingly enough - the magical elements were introduced in later drafts. For me it remains a bit of a stumbling block.

That might not be a problem, however, because we return to the great Robert E. Howard. His first love - and it shows in the stories - was historical adventure fiction as published primarily in journals such as Adventure, authors such as Lamb, Mundy, Bishop, Brodeur - tellers of tales of medieval adventure. That’s where the genesis of the Conan tales comes from, and I share the suspicion that if there had been a strong market for historical adventure fiction when he was writing, we would never have seen Conan; the Hyborian Age was a great way for him to write tales for slightly different markets such as Weird Tales, after others such as Oriental Stories dried up.

“And Babar the Tiger who establishes the Mogul rule in India - and the imperial phase in the life of Baibar the Panther the subject of my last story - and the conquest of Constantinople by the Fifth (sic) Crusade - and the subjugation of the Turks by the Arabs in the days of Abu Berk - and the gradual supplanting of the Arab masters by their Turkish slaves which culminated by the conquest of Asia Minor and Palestine by the Seljuks - and the rise of Saladin - and the final destruction of Christian Outremer by Kalawun - and the First Crusade - Godfrey of Boullion, Baldwin of Boulogne - Bohemund - Sigurd the Josala-farer - Barbarossa - Coeur de Lion. Ye Gods, I could write a century and still have only tapped the reservoir of dramatic possibilities. I wish to hell I had a dozen markets for historical fiction - I’d never write anything else.”

Howard wrote those words, and in all honesty, I feel the same way. Right down to the area, though I would likely add Roger of Sicily and Robert Guiscard to the list. The Eastern Mediterranean in medieval times was a place where cultures clashed, washing over each other as the tides of history swept back and forth, driving armies and peoples before it. I find the time fascinating, and there are thousands of stories to write in this setting, in these times. Even if I end up writing fantasy, it’s a great place to do inspiration, so I’ve pretty much decided to give myself a fortnight to delve into these times and places, hit my backlist of books on the period with a vengeance and re-read some of my old favorites, see what ideas strike me.

A bigger question, however, is what length of stories to write. A while ago, I picked up as complete a run as I could of the old Oriental Stories magazine, the reprints that Wildside Press put out, and some of them really sang to me. (Mostly Howard, I’ll admit, but Kline as well. Obviously I was too late for Adventure, but there are the collections of the Lamb stories, and the others that outfits such as Black Dog and Altus Press have produced on recent years. At one time, long ago, there were dozens of markets for historical adventure novellas, ten, twenty thousand words of action and adventure, tales of daring-do. (Howard Andrew Jones wrote a much better post on this than I’m likely to - take a look.)

None of these survived to even close to the present day, casualties of the collapsing market for the pulps, which is a great pity. And yet, and yet...there is nothing new under the sun. All situations recur over time. To anyone reading this who is making their career as a writer - or would like to do so - I would strongly advise looking at history. What is happening in the publishing world right now is surprisingly close to what happened in the United States with the rise of the pulp magazines, and over here in the United Kingdom when the cheap paperback finally became a reality. (And when the computer software industry had its first flourish, as well, but that’s another story.)

The world is changing, and rapidly. A writer can make a good living with thousands of sales - owning your own work and getting a full share of the royalties, instead of sharing with agents and publishers, means that you no longer need millions of sales to succeed. This wouldn’t have been anything strange to the pulp magazines - they succeed, albeit on thin margins, with sales at about this level. (A good book to read on this is Robert Kenneth Jones ‘The Shudder Pulps’.) This has advantages, allows a greater chance to take a risk.

Here’s where my thoughts are taking me, at least at the moment. Instead of a historical novel series, go for shorter works. Works that, in a different age, I’d have tried to submit to Adventure, the Oriental Stories. Go for strong, tight plots. I’ve been wanting to write at the novella length in any case for a while, and this is a great chance to do it. I’m not sure how I’d release them at the moment, though the temptation to put together a collection of historical novellas is very strong, strong enough that I have a feeling I’ll be working out a commission for a cover before too long...

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