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Talking Writing With Brad Beaulieu

Brad Beaulieu and I met about ten years ago at the twentieth anniversary Writers of the Future workshop, where we spent a week learning the craft from Tim Powers and K.D. Wentworth.  (I still have the notes Brad made on a story of mine from that week.)  From the beginning, he struck me as a person who had an inquisitive and analytical mind that matched his creativity.  Since then, it’s been a pleasure watching his career grow, gaining strong fan support and critical acclaim.  When the opportunity to curate for StoryBundle arose, I knew I wanted to include Brad’s work.  His debut novel, The Winds of Khalakovo, is available as part of the Indie Fantasy Bundle available through February 10, 2015.

Hearing Brad talk about writing is a pretty cool experience.  Though most writers think about their creative process, Brad delves into it.  The result can be a wide-ranging conversation or a tightly focused discussion, but it will always be interesting.  If you have the chance to catch one of his convention workshops (he taught at GenCon’s Writer Symposium last year), I highly recommend it.

In the meantime, Brad was generous enough to answer a few questions about his writing process in general, and The Winds of Khalakovo specifically.  Enjoy!

***

Secrets are a big part of what drives your story and adds complexities to your characters.   How did you approach weaving those secrets into the plot?  Can you talk a little about how those secrets—the ones withheld and the ones discovered—impacted the characters’ choices?

Agreed, and I’ll take it a step further. I think secrets are a big part of what drives any story. Even those that are light or comedic in tone are driven by story questions, the answers to which are revealed only after torturing the reader for a time. Throughout much of The Hobbit, we have the overriding question of What is Smaug? and How dangerous will he be when Bilbo and the dwarves reach the Lonely Mountain at last? In Who Framed Roger Rabbit, we have the mystery of who, in fact, framed Roger Rabbit.

In The Winds of Khalakovo, I tried to introduce mystery early. I wanted the inciting incident to show up quickly, and for it to lead to more questions as the story played out. Early on, there’s an attack on a windship, which the hero of the novel, Prince Nikandr Khalakovo, responds to when it happens. That attack is much more than it seems at first. As it unfolds, larger mysteries are revealed to the reader, which lead to even more mysteries, until the full scope and stakes of the novel are shown near the end of the book.

One of the central characters is a boy named Nasim. He’s a cipher early on. He doesn’t speak often, and when he does it is often unclear what he’s speaking about. Nasim is, in fact, very powerful, and the reasons for that are revealed later in the novel, but one of the things you have to be careful of in novels is having characters that are too powerful. I had initially envisioned Nasim as a savant, a boy gifted with incredible magical abilities, and he is that, but he also lives with a condition that is similar to what we think of as autistic.

It was necessary to limit Nasim in some way, but as it turned out the incarnation I used in the book led to some very interesting reveals. It’s the very root of his condition—an autistic savant—that led me to know so much more about who he really is and where he came from, something I probably would never have come up with if I wasn’t trying to keep his power in check in the first place.

One of the many things I love about The Winds of Khalakovo is its sense of deep history.  How much of the novel’s backstory did you develop before the writing began?

Well, it’s difficult to say exactly, but I’d say “to a moderately large degree.” I worked a lot on the world itself, the nations at play, the magic, the cultures, the wars and times of peace, how trade developed and flourished, threats from outside forces (including the world itself). I didn’t develop every piece of every part of the world, but writers will often develop much, much more than actually shows up on the page, and that’s the approach I took here. I wanted it to be a rich world that I could portray in the novel without committing myself to years of worldbuilding.

And I didn’t stop after I’d developed the world. It matured as the writing began. I can’t see everything I’ll need for the plot ahead of time, so when new things crop up, and I realize I need to lay more bedrock before I can build societies and cities on top of it, I did so, setting aside the writing for a time, comfortable in the knowledge that what I was doing was necessary to deliver the rich story I was trying to give the reader.

How do you decide the limits of your world’s magic?

Here I fall into the camp of “a little goes a long way” of magic systems. J.R.R. Tolkien and George Martin take similar approaches in that magic isn’t very present on the page for much of the books, and when it does show up it’s pretty subtle. It has major effects here and there (the Nazgul, the White Walkers, Sauron, dragons, etc.), and is known to be very powerful, but it’s not shown often, and so (for me, at least) has more impact when it does show up.

One of the earliest decisions I came to was that the magic would be elemental in nature (earth, air, fire, water, and life). What followed was the decision of who could wield it. By and large, the most powerful among the people in The Winds of Khalakovo are the Aramahn, the indigenous people of the islands where the story takes place. They are also very pacifistic. They don’t believe in war—it stains their souls, so to speak—so it made for an interesting mix: a conquering people with little magic lording over a conquered people with powerful magic. It was tricky to find a way to paint this realistically, but hopefully I managed it.

One last thing I’ll mention about the elemental magic is that it is difficult to use, even for those with the ability to do so. One must commune with spirits from the elemental plane in order to do so. If one isn’t careful, one might draw an elemental spirit across to the material plane, and when that happens, the spirits are, well, let’s just say unkind to the living. And even for those who can wield magic well, it costs, because the spirits draw from their life force as the mage uses them for their magical effects. It’s a balance I quite liked: a reasonable cost for the wondrous things they can achieve.

The design of your airships is really, really cool.  What sort of research went into their design and their flight capabilities?

Well, I did a lot of poking about into seaborne craft, and abstracted that for air travel. I had decided early on that the seas in the world of The Winds of Khalakovo were very rough, and so it came to be that windship travel was actually more safe than sailing the seas. And from there I worked out how they might look, and more importantly, how they might work. They have masts on all four sides of the ship (up, down, starboard, larboard), and they have a “keel” at the very center of the ship that uses the ley lines of the archipelago chains to orient the ship. Qiram (magi) help give them lift and summon the winds to steer them to other places on this dangerous world. They also needed a way to land—since they have masts pointing down, they can’t exactly land on the ground. Instead, they have “perches” that jut out from tall cliff faces where the ships moor. These cliff faces become akin to harbors in the age of sail, and are a source of revenue from trade, but are also prime targets in times of war, and so are protected vigorously.

The windships themselves became one of my favorite elements of the entire trilogy, and were the genesis of all sorts of plot points, ship battles, and swashbuckling adventure.

What was your favorite part of the story’s creative process?

I got a real kick out of developing the world itself. I used an excellent little piece of mapping software called Fractal Terrains. The program allows you to specify some basic parameters about a world—things like diameter, water coverage, mountain height and ocean depth, the number of moons—and the software will then render a world for you. I played with the software a lot, altering the parameters and retrying until I had something I liked. I knew I wanted a world with archipelagos. The rendering of the terrain and the channels beneath the ocean surface ended up advising me on the magic of the world. It also created the geo-political structure. I circled the island chains until I had what I wanted: a loose collection of archipelagos that depended upon one another for survival. These became duchies, part of the larger Grand Duchy of Anuskaya, and two of my main characters became a Prince of one duchy and a Princess of another. It also made sense to me that there might have been an indigenous people on these islands that were pushed out by the expansion of the Grand Duchy. And from this flowed both the Aramahn, the peaceful peoples that originally inhabited the islands, and the Maharraht, the warlike splinter of the Aramahn who wish to push the Grand Duchy from the shores of the islands at any cost.

You can take a look at the maps here: http://quillings.com/fiction/the-winds-of-khalakovo/maps/

***

See?  I told you he delves into the process!  To get Winds of Khalakovo today as part of the Indie Fantasy Bundle, check out StoryBundle.  To read more about Brad’s work, check out Quillings, where you’ll also find out about his upcoming epic fantasy series, The Song of the Shattered Sands.

#SFWApro

Comments

( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
sartorias
Jan. 23rd, 2015 07:26 pm (UTC)
Cool! The data about secrets reminds me of the narrative tricks of surprise and tension: surprise being when the reader along with the characters get the shock, and tension being when the reader knows what's coming but the characters don't.

I sometimes have trouble diving how long to hold onto a secret--I know that when I read, I'll hit a point at which I'm feeling spinning wheels. The equivalent in romance is the Grand Misunderstanding. While it can create effective drama for a time, there comes that point when the reader is rolling eyes and wishing they'd sit down and talk for thirty seconds, like ordinary people.
blairmacg
Jan. 23rd, 2015 08:12 pm (UTC)
The sweet-spot of tension and/or surprise can indeed be hard to hit.

I try (but don't always succeed) to think of it in the same way as magical limitations. There better be a good reason the Grand Whomever can wield Major Power, but not in *that* instance. Similarly, if two folks aren't disclosing a secret that can change the course of the novel, I want something deeper than, "We simply can't find the time to chat!"
livejournal
Jan. 23rd, 2015 07:32 pm (UTC)
Shared from Blair MacGregor: Talking Writing With Brad Beaulieu
User sartorias referenced to your post from Shared from Blair MacGregor: Talking Writing With Brad Beaulieu saying: [...] Originally posted by at Talking Writing With Brad Beaulieu [...]
asakiyume
Jan. 23rd, 2015 07:49 pm (UTC)
I love the way the worldbuilding (the magic and the geopolitical structure) grew out of the actual geography--that makes intuitive sense to me. The way your magic works sounds very appealing, too. Looking forward to the book!

(Also, tangentially, your maps and your book covers are gorgeous.)
blairmacg
Jan. 23rd, 2015 08:13 pm (UTC)
Brad has a gift for finding the really cool details and connections that make a world live and breathe. :)
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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