Category: Commentary

Authors and Arthur

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By , November 13, 2013

When you propose to write an epic martial arts adventure set in Medieval Europe, you can’t be blithely unaware of the nascent emergence of the code of chivalry, which is indelibly tied to the romantic stories of the Knights of the Round Table. The Mongoliad Cycle is set in years surrounding the Mongolian invasion of 1241, and when we decided to introduce a perfectly coifed and mannered knight named Percival, we did so being fully aware of the time period. And when you drop a knight named Percival into an epic adventure, you have to address the legacy of this name.

During one of the early conversations in the writers’ room, we had floated the idea that our Percival was the historical personage who the early romance writers based their character on. It felt like a nice little in-joke, but then someone did a date check and we realized that Chrétien de Troyes, who is credited with one of the earliest versions of the Percival story, had done so some sixty years earlier. Early in the 13th century, the German knight Wolfram von Eschenbach had written his romance, Parzival. The joke was on us, and we considered changing the name until Greg Bear offered the suggestion that perhaps there was a Percival in every generation. It was one of those quick fixes that writers come up with—a bit of spackling over a rough spot—and in an emotionally charged scene following one of the first encounters with the Mongols, our Percival has a religious experience. He receives a vision, and this vision haunts him throughout the journey to the East.

In our initial presentation of the Foreworld Saga, our focus has been on the heretofore neglected martial arts of the West. We have sought to bring to life the rich and varied fighting arts that are now being rediscovered and enthusiastically explored by numerous study groups around the world. But our underlying foundation of Foreworld has always been a crypto-pagan mythic structure. One that Percival glimpsed a portion of during his experience in the woods; one that lay underneath the life and death of Genghis Khan. And now, with Katabasis and Siege Perilous, the remaining two volumes of the Mongoliad Cycle, the mystery of the sprig and the cup come to the forefront. It all hinges on the knight for all seasons—the singular one born of every generation: Percival, the knight of the Grail.

It doesn’t end here, either. Next year, Mrs. Pankhurst’s Amazons, a graphic serial written by Tony Wolf and drawn by Yasmin Liang, will be released. It takes place in Victorian England and stars Mr. Bartitsu himself, Edward Barton-Wright, and his liberated niece Persephone Wright—“Persi” as she is known to her friends . . .

[Katabasis is out now via 47North. Siege Perilous will be out in January of 2014.]

[This post originally appeared on the Kindle blog.]

Reading Out Loud

By , June 10, 2013

If you’ve not yet picked up your own copy of Hearts of Iron, here’s what it sounds like when I read from mine. I’ve included a few annotations in the video as well, some small facts about the book and a couple previews of what’s to come.



So you want to be an author…

By , May 2, 2013

Joe Brassey and I were occupying a corner at the Clang Kickstart Party last weekend and I was struck by a memory from a few years back of Joe and I standing on the fire escape outside our martial arts class taking a breather and discussing writing.  Joe was an un-published writer aspiring to become an author and I was an author that had given up on writing, or at least on the idea of writing and publishing fiction.  Yet here we stood, both of us now published and actively pursuing careers as writers.  I shared this with Joe and after the mandatory fist-bump we agreed that life is funny that way.

I am continually running into people that tell me that they want to be a writer.  I bite my tongue.  I don’t say, “No, you don’t.  If you wanted to be a writer you would be writing.”  Because let’s face it, all it takes to be a writer is to write.  That’s what writers do.   I’ve known a lot of writers over the years and we pretty much can’t help ourselves. I sold a couple of short stories in the early nineties, but told myself I didn’t have the drive to be a writer.  What really happened was that I had worked with people in publishing enough to see just how tough the game was and I got discouraged.  So during the ten years that I was ‘not a writer’ I  wrote online articles, magazine articles, a book about swords, automotive reviews, firearms reviews, political and social commentary etc.   I probably wrote the equivalent of a novel or two a year… but I wasn’t a ‘real’ writer.

Then we got the chance to write for Foreworld.  My wife and I co-authored ‘The Shield Maiden‘ on a somewhat compressed deadline, which got us used to writing every day and working together.  We turned in the novella, heaved a sigh of relief and went about our lives. But within days I was ‘jonesing’ to get back to the keyboard and start writing again.  I got started on a novel that I had been thinking about for a year or so and within a day Linda was saying, ‘I want in!’  Yeah, we had it bad…    Now we write practically every day on one project or another, whether it be our second Foreworld Saga Side-Quest (no,it’s not a sequel to ‘The Shield Maiden’) or other future project.

The thing is, if you want to be a writer sooner or later you’re going to have to sit down and write.  Then you will not merely want to be a writer, you’ll be one.

Set a daily goal for yourself.  Start with a block of time and figure out how fast you write, then set a’words-per-day’goalbased on a realistic estimate of how much you can reasonably write.  Then cut that in half and make that your daily goal.  You want your goal to be attainable even when things go sideways on  you.  Mind you this word count is for new content; it should not include editing and re-writing.



Killing Characters is Chicken Soup for the Soul

By , March 13, 2013

I wrote a swashbuckler for the Foreworld Saga last spring and summer called The Book of Seven Hands. it was written in the wake of a divorce, and I can tell you, with no uncertainty, that I loved my mental escape to Sixteenth Century Spain. I really, really needed that world of exploding cannon fire, back-alley sword fights, and insults volleying over crossed steel.

Hm. Upon further review, it wasn’t much of an escape from reality. But let’s press on!

I’m not big on Art as Therapy. In most of my stories, I play. That’s what writing is. It’s a way of diverting my mind to matters of beauty and fun. I like playing with structure in science fiction (“Lot 12A: The Feast of the Dead Manuscript”) and making stories that steer straight into the surreal (“Parade of You”). Stories like those require me to be in a flow of words and dreams, meta-aware of how the sentences are coming out, more like writing poetry than telling an actual hook-rising action-big climax sorta story.

Ripping good yarns of dueling swordsmen are a different kind of flow, but I like it just as much. It’s a flow that’s comforting and familiar to me from studying stage combat, kendo, and tae kwon do. A story about swordmasters resurrecting an ancient martial art in 1524 Spain? Yes, please!

While writing The Book of Seven Hands, I had the 1973/74 production of The Three Musketeers & The Four Musketeers very much on my mind, probably because fight arranger William Hobbes blocked those movies’ duels to look so chaotic, dirty, deadly, and funny in a seemingly out-of-control way. (Just like life!) He also arranged Robin and Marian, Excalibur, and Pirates, each of which has Hobbes’ signature of fights fought in panicked desperation – little films within the film. I wanted my adventure to have the same taut energy.

Why? Because Basilio and Alejo, the heroes of The Book of Seven Hands, were going to pay for my misery. Accordingly, they only have one scene where they kick actual ass. Every fight and narrow escape after that is another humiliation, another debilitating wound or broken bone. This matters doubly because it’s 1524: There are no doctors as we think of them, only barbers and “surgeons” (a term of near-derision that elicited shudders and disgust in 1524). Poor Basilio and Alejo were unlucky enough to be born in a time when bleeding or burning the victim, er, patient, was the answer to every ailment, and cleaning wounds with water was radical gonzo medicine.

That’s right. I went medieval on my Renaissance characters.

The other thing I found deeply satisfying, beyond torturing my characters, was creating a rich back-story for them. I see The Book of Seven Hands as, perhaps, the final installment of a three part story. It stands on its own just fine because I laid out in rich detail for myself how my middle-aged sword fighters got to this last, hopeless chapter. And it was fun flashing glimpses of the older adventures at readers:

Basilio grabbed the back of the expensive red chair as the room seemed to spin for a moment. He had once leaped from the crow’s nest of a sinking galleon, flaming sails flapping around him as he dived head first into the flotsam and jetsam scattered from a Mediterranean sea-fight. He and Alejo had once run headlong at a French cannon line to stop them from destroying Don Manuel’s supply caravan outside Florence. But the Archbishop of Barcelona, seeking for him in Vacanana – that actually frightened Basilio.

It’s easy for some to disregard adventure stories as being untrue to life, fabricating problems that we know they’ll get out of, or to dismiss a swashbuckler like this as escapist or fantastical. But for everything there is a season, even in writing. A time to create reality and a time to alter it. A time to look life in the teeth and a time to play with it. Last year was hard, but it was also more fun than I’ve ever had in my life, in no small part because I met a new cool and lovely companion and also because of The Book of Seven Hands.

I’ll live.

I can’t say the same for all my characters. But I’ll live.

Hanging Guns on the Wall

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By , February 20, 2013

When we started The Mongoliad, we had a few conversations about whether we were writing a secret history or an alternate history, as well as a lengthy digression or two as to the difference. It’s a fine line, really, and I’m sure we’ll cross it a few times during the Foreworld Saga, but the main distinction comes down to whether a story maps to existing history or diverges wildly. Oddly enough, it would seem that we’re mappers—archeologists, detectives, and amateur historians. We like to explore the dusty edges of history and ask what if? when we find places where the stories don’t quite come together.

The first what if? was to extrapolate on the death of Ögedei Khan, building the basis for what would be The Mongoliad. Along the way, we dug into the dusty archives of 1241 and discovered a few other interesting stories—notably the story of the sede vacante in Rome. Cardinals imprisoned in an abandoned temple, forced to vote for the next Pope, a man who was Pope for only two weeks and then died, but not before performing a single important act as the head of the church. How could we not fold this in to our narrative?

The Mongoliad is, in many ways, a fairly straight forward narrative. The Shield-Brethren have a plan; they go on a long ride wherein hijinks ensue; they attempt to execute that plan. We built it as a year-long serial adventure, and along the way we made sure to leave some hooks from which we could hang other narratives.

(It’s an old riff on something Anton Chekhov once said: never hang a gun on the wall if you’re not planning on firing it.)

Long form narratives—and mostly, I’m referring to television serials—tend to be written with an awareness of the long term plan and some awareness of the short term paths that will be followed, which is why you’ll see narrative opportunities planted early on. Not all of them will be taken up by the writers, but they’re there, right? You hang a number of guns; when you need one, it’s there for the taking. The trick is, of course, not putting so many guns on the wall that you forget the texture of the wallpaper.

With the SideQuests, we’re using some of those hanging guns, and we’re putting others up on the Foreworld wall as well. When it came time to write The Beast of Calatrava, I had two notes to work from: set the story in Iberia and 1212. As I started to do research on both the place and time, it was like stumbling upon a hidden cache of guns to hang on the wall.

  • Prince John sent an envoy to Muhammad al-Nasir with an offer to make England a Muslim kingdom in exchange for various concessions. The story is sourced back to Matthew of Paris, who was the medieval version of National Enquirer, so take this story with a grain of salt, but you can see the what if? potential, can’t you?
  • Sancho VII of Navarre was Berengaria of Navarre’s older brother. Berengaria was married to Richard the Lion-Heart. Berengaria’s role in Lion in Chains is minor, but important in that gun hanging sense.
  • Did you know that Cistercian leader Arnaud Amalric was the one who coined the phrase “Kill them all; let God sort them out”? It was said during a campaign in 1209, a few years before he lead a large party of Templars into Iberia.
  • These Templars weren’t too happy about not being able to loot wantonly as they moved south. As a result, they took their toys and went home, leaving the Castilian and Navarese armies woefully outnumbered by the Almohad army massing on the other side of the Sierra Morena.

Most sources report that the Christians were led through the Sierra Morena by an unnamed shepherd, and the big what if? that powered The Beast of Calatrava was to give that shepherd a name. Once he had a name, he needed some back story, and the rest is, well, Foreworld history.

The Beast of Calatrava is out now from 47North. You can get it here.

Previously . . .

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By , February 13, 2013

As we ready ourselves for the release of The Mongoliad: Book Three, I thought it would be helpful to recap some of the previously offered commentary by the authors.

Cooper Moo on rooftop sword fighting. [ Full piece @ ]

In 2004 I joined a fight club. It was more of a sword-geek guild, really. We met every Sunday morning in a nondescript warehouse in Seattle’s industrial district, made our own weapons, and fought with them. It was gloriously homegrown and savage. Olympic fencing this was not.

We beat the hell out of one another every Sunday, went to work bruised and bleeding on Monday, and came back the following Sunday to do it all over again. This went on for almost two wonderful years until, one fateful day, Neal—one of our founding members—had some bad new for us.

We were doing it wrong.

Mark Teppo talks about the medieval arms race. [ Full piece @ ]

Part of our purview on the project, an interactive story that’s being turned into a book trilogy, was to portray Western martial arts correctly. Thus began my crash course in the evolution of arms and armor over several centuries of medieval life.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this education was charting the changes that occurred as a result of this medieval arms race. Let’s start with the Battle of Hastings, in 1066, as recorded by the Bayeaux Tapestry, which is more than 200 linear feet of embroidered pictures of men in armor.

A little insight into the workings of the writers’ room [ Full piece @ ]

I like to joke that ninety percent of my job is herding cats, and there’s a little cry for help in that joke. Because really? Keeping a room full of writers on task is EXACTLY like herding cats; it’s only worse in the sense that a great deal of the magic of a writers’ room only happens when your cats have gone and gotten very distracted. Writers, as solitary thinkers, tend to spin stories out of nothing but moonbeams and cobwebs and whatever the latest Internet meme is that is keeping them from doing pay work. You put a bunch of them in a room, and the story generation becomes exponential. In many ways, the easiest part of managing The Mongoliad was letting the ideas in the room run unhindered.

Joe Brassey talks about the origins of the Circus Branch [ Full piece @ ]

Three days earlier, and I’m in the meeting where I got this assignment. The upstairs office is a big room with a big, long table at its centerpiece. A pink box of doughnuts and pastries sit in the center, and various books on the Mongol Empire, medieval fighting techniques, and the events of 1241 are scattered here and there. My laptop is humming along as I try to keep pace with the jokes and the story-plotting that’s thrumming along as seven writers plus a few other brain-storming minds toss out ideas. Words fly left and right as our Canon Master Mark Teppo attempts the admirable and unenviable task of herding a bunch of inquisitive minds like cats fighting over a piece of string and keeping us all on task. That’s important today because he’s bringing up a point that is going to change our course a bit. Up until now The Mongoliad has consisted of three branches of story weaving together. In meeting cadence, they’re called the Brethren Branch, the Mongol Branch, and the Rome Branch. Mark is about to turn that all upside down.

A brief essay about what genre The Mongoliad is. [ Full piece @ Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist ]

Here’s the thing: I understand labels. I understand genre marketing. I get that people like to put things in neat little boxes so that they know how to approach them. I also started off my career writing “urban fantasy” books that don’t have werewolves, vampires, or the undead in them. I call the Codex books “occult noir” and no one understands what I’m saying; I say “urban fantasy” and we have, at least, a general starting point.

For a moment, then, let’s consider this claim that The Mongoliad is an epic fantasy. What’s epic about it is the amount of research we did. We wanted to write a Western martial arts adventure story, one that was true to the actual fighting techniques of the time. Fighting techniques that are, only now, being rediscovered and taught in martial arts schools around the world. You know what? There’s a lot more to fighting with a sword than simply hitting the other guy first.

And, finally, here are a few of things that have been said about the previous volumes.

  • “An outstanding historical epic with exceptional character development and vivid world building… In addition to the heroic battles–including swordfights, archery, wrestling, and martial arts–romance, political intrigue, and promises of betrayal and rebellion are suffused throughout this cinematic tale…Stephenson and Bear & co. have set the bar high for the series.” – Publishers Weekly
  • “Story lines abound but interconnecting them all is the fascinating evolution of sword fighting… sf and military-history buffs will devour this genre-bending saga.” – Booklist
  • “This off-beat alternate history of Eurasia could be your new obsession.” – io9
  • “Stephenson’s knack for dense historical detail combines with lots of sword-swinging adventure…As it stands, the book itself is a romp through this thinly fictional historic period, one that is full of well-described swordplay and richly imagined characters. The transitions between the voices…is seamless. The Mongoliad: Book One feels like the start of a truly epic adventure.” – Locus Magazine
  • “The pacing is taut throughout…the fight scenes in particular are written exceptionally well, with a clarity and subtlety missing from just about every other representation of medieval warfare in prose or on film. The authors have clearly done their homework on the period, but they wear their collective education lightly; the result is a world with depth and texture, not a history textbook.” –
  • “Recommended for readers of alternate history and military fantasy‚
    and fans of Stephenson.” – Library Journal
  • “…A collaborative epic unlike any other that will enthrall fans of fantasy, martial arts, and historical fiction.” – SF Signal
  • “This story is pure adventure, with much swordplay and swashbuckling.” – Kirkus Reviews

What Genre is The Mongoliad?

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By , August 18, 2012

Our chief scribe, Mark Teppo, was asked to write a little something about the genre classification of The Mongoliad for Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist. As it has been some time since that post went up over there, we’re not above pulling a copy here for our records.

. || . || . || . || .

One of the comments I hear regularly when I tell people about The Mongoliad is “Oh, well, I don’t read epic fantasy.” They don’t mean to be dismissive about it; they’re just pointing out that, in all likelihood, they’ve already checked out of this conversation and the rest is simply going to be me talking to them while they think about butterflies or chocolate covered bonbons or the like. I’d don’t really want to be dismissive in return, because, really, “epic” and “fantasy” are two words that mean a lot more than the sort of thing that Tolkein wrote.

Here’s the thing: I understand labels. I understand genre marketing. I get that people like to put things in neat little boxes so that they know how to approach them. I also started off my career writing “urban fantasy” books that don’t have werewolves, vampires, or the undead in them. I call the Codex books “occult noir” and no one understands what I’m saying; I say “urban fantasy” and we have, at least, a general starting point.

For a moment, then, let’s consider this claim that The Mongoliad is an epic fantasy. What’s epic about it is the amount of research we did. We wanted to write a Western martial arts adventure story, one that was true to the actual fighting techniques of the time. Fighting techniques that are, only now, being rediscovered and taught in martial arts schools around the world. You know what? There’s a lot more to fighting with a sword than simply hitting the other guy first.

And as we went down the rabbit hole of martial arts, we realized we couldn’t short-change the rest of the story as well. So, when we talk about how Rœdwulf’s bow is constructed and how he fires it, it’s because we dug up copies of Roger Ascham’s Toxophilus, a 16th century manual of proper construction and use of the longbow. When we talk about the composition of the forests around Legnica, it’s because we sourced–as near as we could fathom–historical from Polish naturalists who are keen on the history of their local greenery. (We also had a list of about twenty bird species that were native to the area and we would have worked them all in somehow, but, well, we had to draw the line somewhere.) The point is: we wanted to get as many of the details right as we could, because history is so much, much more fantastic than you can ever imagine.

We had a conversation once about where to file The Mongoliad. Was it alternate history? Not entirely. Was it a secret history? Somewhat. Did we make things up? Certainly. Did we stretch the truth a bit? Most definitely. Our knights, for example, use techniques that aren’t entirely codified for another two hundred years (the key word here is “entirely”); their use of armor is about fifty years ahead of the rest of the Europe (they’re bad-ass outliers, of course). And there are things that we make up entirely (the Binders, for instance). Oh, and the entire crypto-pagan mythology that underlies all of Foreworld?

Well, I’ll argue we didn’t make that up, but then again, I’m the one who has a soft spot for esoteric mystery schools.

You could argue the difference between science fiction and fantasy is the application of faith. The difference between regular fantasy and epic fantasy is then, perhaps, the amount of faith you have to bring with you when you read a story. We’ve written a story about medieval Europe, and guess what? They had a much, much different baseline for faith than we do now.

It’s just an adventure story, really, a long-form novel that illuminated a period of history that is wonderfully rich in both its belief systems, its technologies, and its martial arts. We call our version of history Foreworld, because it is a different state of the world. How much you believe what we’ve written is up to you, but I can tell you that both more and less of the work is true.

In which case, maybe the best way to classify The Mongoliad is to call it an Epic Historical Fantasy.

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