On Writing DUSTER

Picture of a half-man, half-cat face with a green eye

I thought I’d write a little about my process when I wrote Duster, my new novel that comes out in two weeks. I’m a huge process nerd, so this will be fun for me. You, I’m not so sure about.

Duster came about during a period when I had set aside certain portions of the day for writing, but before I necessarily had enough projects to fill that time. (That is not a problem, currently.) So, one day I found myself sitting at my desk with nothing to work on. Staring at a blank piece of paper for three hours isn’t a great deal of fun, so I searched my brain for an idea. I remembered a character that I’d been sitting on for a long time: a half-human, half-alien/elvish/race-to-be-decided fantasy character, clearly unkempt and untamed, definitely of a violent and probably criminal nature, with the words “half breed” tatooed across his knuckles. I hadn’t yet found a story to put him in, but I decided not to wait anymore.

“I’ll start with the character and let the story come to him.”

So for a dramatic flair, I started by looking at this character down the length of his sword. That was the start to chapter 1:

The three Duarsteri characters on the blade stood for death, revenge, and a long journey finished. The knuckles of the hand holding the sword had characters on them, as well: faded, crude tattoos that spelled out “Half-Breed” in the language of the North.

“We have a problem, stranger?” I asked, careful not to move my jaw too much. The tip of the sword was tickling my neck right under the jawbone, and even a tiny bit of downward pressure would slit my throat quite nicely.   The creature holding the weapon didn’t answer immediately. He was pale and fleshy for one of his race, the “half” of “half-breed” being human, I assumed.

I wrote the interaction between my new characters, discovering that my viewpoint character, Mika, was an old, fat tavernkeeper with a wife and three kids.

Not your typical fantasy hero, but I was sure he had some hidden talents. Meanwhile, his troubled middle child has disappeared and it has something to do with the creature he’d just met. I send him out to search.

Let me take a moment now and discuss authors putting themselves into their work. When people say “Write what you know,” I have never thought it to mean “write about sitting at your computer writing.” What it has always meant to me was build characters and themes that resonate with you personally. That gives your story an extra depth, a hidden level of meaning and emotion that shines through no matter what the genre or topic you’re working in.

Not even a chapter into this book and I’ve already packed it with a lot of stuff that I care deeply about. First let’s talk about Mika, whose similarities are right there on the surface. A middle-aged family man with a wild past whose glory days are behind him but has no regrets about putting it all aside for his family. Like me, he was a troubled middle child, though unlike me he has a troubled middle child as well. And that child struggles with addiction as I have. So, already we’re dealing with encroaching old age, teenage rebellion, and addiction, all topics both very close to me and ones in which I have done a lot of both empirical reading and anecdotal living.

And knowing me, I was sure I’d be putting Mika through the wringer, and he—like most of us—would find that there were no easy answers to the questions of death, rebellion, and addiction.

Now, Heftraas, my half-breed Duster, was a different kind of self-insert entirely. Caught between between two worlds and at home in neither, he is at war with the world and cares not who he harms in his single-minded quest for justice.

I have a Star of David tattooed on the back of my neck. I jokingly tell people that it cuts me off from the entire world because Jews hate tattoos and everyone hates the Jews. It’s not that big of a joke. I am Jewish but not religious in any way. I am uncomfortable in both the world of Judaism and the Goy. So an outcast—and possibly even more importantly, one who takes no steps to become anything but—resonates with me on an interesting level.

And again, there is no easy road for this type of personality to travel down.

But all that is further on in the story. For the moment, I was just riffing, sending my main character out into the world looking for his son. I spent a couple chapters doing that, introducing myself and the reader to the greater world and to my favorite character in the book: Gair who is a big, evil bastard, an unapologetic pimp and murderer, but a steadfastly loyal friend to Mika.

One of my favorite tropes is the moral character with the immoral friend. How much of their soul do they compromise to maintain that friendship? And how moral are they truly if they allow their friend to behave in such a way, especially if it’s in the service of their needs?

Again, expect no easy answers.

I do a flashback chapter on Mika’s early life, when he joins a high-tier army unit and meets Gair for the first time. The old tavernkeeper was a bit of a badass back in the day. I told you he had some special skills.

And then the well ran dry. I had no idea why Mika’s son had disappeared. I had no idea why Heftraas was after him. I had no plot.

I have written literary and slipstream pieces with no plot. I quite enjoy it, and have even sold some. But an epic fantasy without a plot isn’t…well…epic.

I thought about plot for some time but then realized I was going about it all wrong. How was I supposed to know what was happening to my characters when I had very little knowledge about the greater world they lived in. So, I set about world-building. And as I like to do, when dealing with fantasy, the first thing I write is the creation story. I give you the first entry you see from The Book of Three, though there are many other entries scattered throught the book:

The Book of Three

 Vol. 1, “Origins” p. 3 v. 21-32

The last three gods in the world, brothers all, stood in a tall keep by the southern ocean, watching the plain below their walls fill with giant Galloch invaders. They could not hold the keep alone, so they set about creating reinforcements.

Sygnus, the oldest, took a rock from the cliff wall. He carved it into a shape much like himself, yet wingless and with an extra finger on each hand.

“Behold,” he said to his brothers. “I have made us an army.” And he breathed life into the statue. Then he set about carving many more, naming them Illinthrell after the flowers that bloomed along the cliff’s edge.

Brom, the next in line, thinking to improve even more on his brother’s idea, captured one of the many cats that wandered through the empty halls of the stronghold. He broke its limbs to make it walk upright and shaped it into something resembling himself, yet with sharper claws and keener eyesight.

 “Behold,” he said. “I, too, have made us an army.” Then he breathed intelligence into the creature, and set off to capture more cats. He named them Duarsteri after the darkness they hunted in.

 Haggan, the youngest of the three, watched his brothers’ efforts and thought a long time. The Gallochs had already beaten an army of gods; the brothers would need more than cats and statues to defeat them. They needed more than gods.

 Haggan drew his sword and gave it to Sygnus. “Brother, cut off my right hand.”

Sygnus was confused, but he obeyed, severing his brother’s arm at the wrist.

Haggan turned to Brom. “Brother, cut off my left hand.”

Brom, too, obeyed, severing his brother’s left arm at the wrist.

 “Behold,” said Haggan. “I have made us an army greater than the Gods themselves.” Then he collapsed onto the stone floor and bled his life into the two hands. And Man grew from the right hand, and Woman from the left, and they knew death from the moment of their creation.

The creation story came with two more races for the world besides mankind and the Duarsteri, but more importantly it brought me a plot! Throughout the book I also enjoyed exploring how all the races shared the same basic creation myth, but that their versions where each a bit different. The drift of story over time and culture also being a favorite subject of mine.

After that, it was merely a matter of putting my beloved characters in horrible situations and hoping they could survive and improve and maybe even save the world.