Episode 67: Griffin Barber

An hour-long interview with Griffin Barber, author of Second Chance Angel, co-authored with Kacey Ezell; 1636: Mission to the Mughals, co-authored with Eric Flint, and Man-Eater, Book 3 of the Murphy’s Lawless series, set in Dr. Charles E. Gannon‘s Caine Riordan universe, and several short stories.




Griffin Barber’s Amazon Page


Griffin Barber‘s first novel was 1636: Mission to the Mughals, co-authored with Eric Flint. He’s also the author of the novella Man-Eater, Book 3 of the Murphy’s Lawless series, set in Dr. Charles E. Gannon‘s Caine Riordan universe, and a number of short stories. His latest novel is Second Chance Angel, co-authored with Kacey Ezell, was recently released by Blackstone Publishing.

Griffin spent his youth in four different countries, learning three languages, “and burning all his bridges.” Finally settled in Northern California with a day job as a police officer in a major metropolitan department, he lives the good life with his lovely wife, crazy-smart daughter, and needy dog.

The (Lightly Edited) Tranascript

So, Griffin, welcome to The Worldshapers!

Thanks so much for having me.

I’m glad to have you. I talked to your co-author on Second Chance Angel, which is one of the books we’ll be talking about, Kacey Ezell, just four days ago, I guess just the beginning of this week, maybe just two days ago. Not that that matters to anybody listening because this will go live sometime way down the road. But anyway, I did talk to her very recently and said I’ve been looking forward to talking to you. And I will start the same way I start all of these, by getting you to go back into “the mists of time” and tell me how you got interested in science fiction and fantasy and how you got interested in writing it. So, how did that all work for you? And a little bit about your, you know, general growing up and background.

So, my father was an executive with Caterpillar, and when I started reading voraciously . . . first off, I’m dyslexic, so I had a lot of challenges to learning to read and learning to read quickly and especially learning to write manually. And so, I think I was a little bit a late bloomer when it came to reading a lot of stuff. But I discovered very early on and stole from my father’s dresser a copy of The Lord of the Rings and really got into that and enjoyed it quite a bit and started reading a lot of science fiction, mostly hard science fiction, though, you know, specific titles I can’t really recall at this, you know, late day and age, until I got into my teens, when I discovered Pournelle, Dave Drake, that kind of stuff. So, this was the ’80s and, of course, Star Wars, that kind of thing, was available as far as media is concerned. But when it came to reading the stuff, I really enjoyed Hammers’ Slammers and Dave Drake’s work. Jerry Pournelle’s open universe, called War World, was another one that I just thought the world of. And, yeah, so C.J. Cherryh, Elizabeth Moon, Anne McCaffrey, just a ton of . . . I remember going to the library and checking out a lot of the Dragonriders of Pern books as a kid, so, yeah, I had a lot of science fiction influences as a kid.

Did you have friends who are into it as well, or were you kind of the only one that you knew that read this stuff?

No, actually, I kind of lucked out when I was about 10. One of the kids that moved into my neighborhood in North Carolina, still my friend today, working up in Alaska, Kyle, Kyle moved in, and we discovered that we both like science fiction and fantasy. And he remains a voracious reader and a really good, like, he’ll forward stuff to me that, you know, that he thinks I’ll enjoy, that kind of stuff. But he’s more in the fantasy vein these days as far as reading. So, he’ll give me, you know, like, he was the one . . . I hadn’t heard of The Lies of Locke Lamora, and he’s like, “Dude!” So, he gave that to me to read, and I really did enjoy it.

Yeah, I enjoyed that one a lot, too.

Yeah. And, you know, I’m a big fan of heist movies, you know, huge fan of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and pretty much everything Guy Ritchie’s ever put on film as good examples of the heist or the multiple storylines getting tangled up.

So, where did you grow up? Did you grow up and move around, or were you in one place?

Yeah, we moved around quite a bit. I originally started out and I was born in Peoria, Illinois, and went to . . . we moved to Spain and then to Canada and then back to the States when I was, I think, six. And then stayed there until I was 16, at which point we were back in Peoria, Illinois, and then moved from Peoria to Geneva, Switzerland, and stayed there for about six years. I finished up my high school there and went to a bit of college, wasting my dad’s money, failing out from those colleges back in the States, and went back and was working as a bartender in Geneva at a Mexican restaurant’s bar that’s right outside the garre, the train station in Geneva, met my wife there and returned to the States, I guess about a year after that, to Nevada and from thence to California or actually sorry, back to Chicago, which is probably one of my favorite cities in the world, and from Chicago, Oak Park, outside of Chicago, and then off to Northern California, which is where I’ve stayed for the last, jeez, 22 years now.

You did a lot of things in there, but you ended up as a police officer, I see from your bio.

Yep. So, I joined a major metropolitan department here in Northern California, and I’ve been doing that for 20 years as of February last year.

Where did the writing fit in with all of that? When did you really start trying your hand, as a kid or later on?

I wrote a bit as a kid, got into a contest, and won the local one, won the next level up the next year. And then, they didn’t believe I’d written it myself, so they basically said I wasn’t . . . they disqualified me. And I showed them. I didn’t write again for 20 years.

That taught ‘em!

Yeah, exactly. So, then I . . . but in the meantime, I did a lot of roleplaying games. I ran a lot of D&D and RolemasterSpace MasterTraveler. Pretty much every kind of roleplaying game out there, pen-and-paper roleplaying game out there. I usually read it, liked it, and read it.

I like to say that although theoretically, I majored in journalism at university, at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas, really, I majored in Dungeons and Dragons and minored in everything else, based on the amount of time I spent on it.

Right. It probably taught you more about stats than the stats class, right?

I probably did. So, what was kind of . . . when you got back into trying to write, what did you start with? And how did that work with you getting into published professionally?

So, I was walking a beat and on my beat was Borderlands Bookstore . . .

Oh, yes.

Borderlands Books

. . . which is one of the premier Northern California bookstores, certainly for science fiction and horror, and hanging out with Alan Beatts, and I’d been talking about how I’d always wanted to write and was trying to finally write because . . . I had a couple of things going on as well. So, attention deficit disorder is a real thing. And I kind of resent people when they talk about, “Oh, I just got the ADD,” or whatever, ADD moment. I was diagnosed with it and finally got some medication for it after I was sitting on the counselor’s couch and blubbering about how I wanted to do all these things and never had. And she said, “Well, you know, there’s some medication you could probably take, and you could, you know, maybe do that.” And a year after that, I had my first novel written.

And so, I’m walking the beat, and I’m talking to different folks at Borderlands and stuff. And I was told by Alan Beatts, the owner there, you know, “Hey, take a look at this.” He said, “Let me take a look at it, and I’ll tell you what I think.” And I was like, “Well, sure.” So, thinking, Wow, that’s pretty cool. And he did. And he said, “This is really good, and you have to send it out.” And he was also really relieved that his beat officer actually wrote well, rather than crappily, and he’d have to let me down easy, given that I was going to be around for a while. So, that novel has been since trunked, but a lot of the work I did on it informed Second Chance Angel. I’ve always been kind of fascinated with A.I., and how do we get like an anthropomorphic A.I. that, you know, feels and talks and seems to behave more in line with humanity without having the natural instinct for survival, et cetera? So, that dealt with that, but there were some other errors and problems with it, and so it got trunked.

Well, you know, you learn to do by doing, as they say.

Exactly. Especially in writing.

When did you make the step up to the next level, then?

And so, I’d been going to . . . as an adjunct to trying to sell that novel, I had been going to World Fantasy because it was really cool. And that’s where my friend Kyle met Scott Lynch, and I’m like, “Who?” And he’s like, “It’s Scott Lynch. Lies of Locke Lamora, you’ve got to read it, it’s an awesome book.” So anyway, we had been going to that for some time and hobnobbing with a lot of these authors that are really neat people, and we attended a panel with Walter Jon Williams and Charles Gannon, Chuck Gannon, and it was on gunpowder and fantasy, I think. And the panel went really well, but there was an individual at the panel who was a little bit abrasive, and Chuck was being hunted by this guy. And Kyle and I kind of intervened to make sure that this guy didn’t harass Chuck much because we wanted to talk to him. And we ended up speaking with Chuck and having a few cocktails at the bar that evening. And he, the next morning he’s, “I read some of your stuff off your blog. And it’s really good, it’s got a very different quality. You need to write for Eric Flint, the 1632 universe.” And the Grantville Gazette was specifically what he was talking about, it was, you know, a good way to get short stories out there, get your name recognized and work with professionals, get the professional credits, et cetera. And it still remains that.

But at the time, I was, you know, like I said earlier, about how I can show people, you know, I know better because I’m not right. I was like, “Oh, you know, I’m not a big fan of time travel, number one. Number two, I’m not a, you know, I’ve got this novel I’m trying to sell.” So, he let it go and let me, you know, but a year later, when I come back to him, to World Fantasy, he’s like, “How’s it going for you?” So, I kind of bit my, you know, swallowed my pride and said, “It’s not going well. We haven’t sold it.” And he’s like, “Oh, they still need people that can tell some stories and synthesize all the history and stuff, and I think you’re, you know, you’d be good at it.” So, I wrote a story, and unlike, you know, it’s unusual in my experience of talking to other authors, that story that I wrote, bank on it sold immediately.

I’ve had both Eric and Chuck on The Worldshapers, so I’ve talked to both of them, and we talked, of course, about the 1632 universe. A lot of authors have kind of made their way in through that particular universe, it seems like.

Yeah, well, there’s a lot of words being written for it. I don’t know how many it’s up to now, I think it might be six or seven million. There’s a lot of words and a lot of different collaborators. And it’s a really neat universe. I enjoy writing in it. It’s the rigor of trying to get historical facts and characters right, combined with being a little creative with “What if?”, you know, that game that we all played as kids, “What if somebody went back and killed Hitler?” and when, and all that kind of stuff, so it’s been fun.

Now we’re going to talk about Second Chance Angel in a little bit. But just to get an idea of your creative process, we’ll take a look at the whole . . . Man-Eater, I guess, is the latest one, the whole series is called . . .

Murphy’s Lawless.

And it’s actually set in the Caine Riordan universe?

Yeah. Which is Chuck Gannon’s universe. I joked that I call Chuck, it’s Chuck “The Rainmaker” Gannon, ‘cause a lot of the opportunities I’ve had, indeed, most of the opportunities I’ve had, aside from Second Chance Angel, although he did introduce me to my agent, everything that has kind of come to me that’s been super-positive has been through Chuck Gannon, so, I owe him a lot.

Well, maybe give us an overview of Murphy’s Lawless and Maneater, specifically, whatever you want to give by way of a synopsis without, you know, giving anything away that you don’t want to give away.

So, in the core books of Chuck’s universe, the Caine Riordan books, he is basically behind enemy lines. And one of the things in his galaxy-spanning war, or our neck of the galaxy, anyway, one of the ongoing deals is this alien race has been kidnapping human soldiers and turning them out for their use. And Caine Riordan has stumbled across a group of those soldiers. They’re put in cryo-sleep for however long, in some cases hundreds of years, and then thawed out when they felt it appropriate. But Caine stumbles across a unit of these folks, or a group of soldiers stolen out of time, and he puts them to use but for their own good, kind of situation. So, it’s very much one of those tropes of soldiers out of time, kind of deal. Murphy’s Lawless is dealing with some of the guys that are a little bit more broken and perhaps not as suitable for frontline action, but they’re struggling to make it happen anyway. The characters that I specifically used were Chalmers and Jackson, they’re a criminal-investigation division from the Mogadishu era when they’re taken, and they are investigating a spy that is working for the bad guys, trying to find someone that is going to report on their troop movements before they can do too much damage.

So, working in someone else’s universe. It’s a little different than when you get to Second Chance Angel, which is something you and Kacey developed. What does that . . . I mean, obviously, there’s not as much worldbuilding involved. Is there a Bible for all of this that you have to follow, or what do you start with?

Well, for the 1632 universe, oh my, is there a Bible? There’s, as I said, there’s at least two million words. But the core novels are up to, I think, a million or something like that. It’s huge. So, you don’t necessarily have to know all of that, but it helps. And then because I’m an idiot, I shot my mouth off about India and what was going on there. So, I had to do an enormous amount of research on India, specifically Mughal India, which at the time was Islamic, but Islamic conquerors, Hindu soldiers, very inclusive kind of empire as far as, like, they took talent from wherever talent was, and they paid cash, which nobody did at the time. So, the creative process in that one and that universe is very much constrained by what’s come before and by what is plausible, given the extensive research that you have to do. So, you know, every story is a human story, right? Otherwise, we’re really not telling it. So, in this particular regard, it’s within these constraints trying to tell that human story, make it engaging and make it fun, and maybe make some points that you wanted to make as a human being or writer.

So that’s that universe. And then for Chuck Gannon’s universe, I’ve been lucky enough to be one of his alpha or beta readers for a number of years for the mainline series. So, I had read everything that exists that’s been published for that, and some that hadn’t been published yet. And then, I was kind of part of the initial skull sessions that originated the idea of doing this Murphy’s Lawless sequence and developing that, so I knew . . . I was very familiar with a lot of the background anyway, and then having read . . . he prepared a bible for us that was, I think, 127 pages, as well as a bunch of Pinterest files to kind of show what the imagery that he thought of the planet that they’re on, called R’Bak, which was cool. So . . . and I’m used to, because of my gaming background, I’m very much used to assimilating the gazette, assimilating the “this is the universe, and what’s the story you’re going to tell in that universe,” that kind of thing.

So, how did your planning/outlining process look? Is it a detailed outline for you, or how does that work?

Well, for Man-Eater, not at all, I kind of pantsed that very heavily. Because it’s a novella, it’s pretty short. So, there wasn’t a whole lot I had to do. But for Second Chance Angel and anything that you’re going to do it collaboratively, you’ve got to absolutely make certain that you have an outline that you agreed on because otherwise, things get confusing and, you know, people don’t know where you’re at, that kind of stuff.

So, is that a long, drawn-out process, the two of you going back and forth and deciding how it’s going to be?

Yeah, it’s not . . . I wouldn’t say it’s a long, drawn-out process. One of the cool things I was just able to do that Eric taught, Eric Flint, was a very easy, very simple outlining technique, using Excel or whatever equivalent you need, or Sheets or whatever for Apple. And it’s, the left-hand, left-most column is chapter, the second one is scene, the second column is scene, and then it goes who, what, when, where, and why across. And it’s just one or two sentences. Or it can be as complex as you want it to be. But one or two sentences describing what’s going on in the what, the when is really useful for connecting how, you know, what’s the time frame for everything, and where and why, again, for making sure you know where you’re at in the book and that kind of thing. Really very useful, especially if you’re like me, and you’re not necessarily all that up on actual outlining technique as far as Roman numerals and large capital letters and all that kind of stuff. And the biggest thing I found advantageous about it is that if you change something in the writing, you still want to discover something while you’re writing, you can just go in and change it, and it doesn’t have to affect the huge slew of, you know, the numeral system and everything, how you organized it in that very strict outlining kind of sense.

That’s interesting. I haven’t heard that particular one before. It sounds useful.

Yeah, I found it to be. You know, most people that I, most authors I’ve spoken to, they’re like, “Wow.” Because, you know, if outlining is not intimidating, then cool, but if it is intimidating for you and/or you feel like, “Well, that’s going to constrain me because I’m not going to be able to do al the discovery that I want to do,” well, it’s easy to continue to discover something about the characters, et cetera, and then only have to change one or two lines, or even change a row in the Excel document, so you can kind of keep track of where you turn left and that kind of thing.

So, when you’re working in someone else’s universe, was there an approval process before you went ahead?

Well, Eric and I collaborated on the outline for Mission to the Moghuls very closely. And I basically . . . yes, so the outline is definitely an approval process, and I worked very closely with him to get that squared away. And then, depending on your deal with Eric, as far as how much work he has time for, number one, and number two, also thinks he needs to do for it, he’ll, you know, either weigh in fully and be doing 50 percent of the actual writing, or he’ll do less, depending on those criteria. But the outline is always, with Eric, a very collaborative process.

What does your actual writing process look like? Are you a fast writer or a slow writer? Do you . . . . you know, considering what your job is, I would think that you have to work around things a bit.

Well, I think everybody has their strengths and weaknesses, right? I can write action very, very well, personal combat, I do pretty damn well, and part of that springs from 20 years of experience of writing down what somebody did to somebody else in an incident report, sometimes three and four times a day. So, I have lots of practice with doing that, but I am not necessarily as good at giving you an emotional scene, which for me, it runs counter to my day-job experience. You’re not supposed to put a bunch of emotion into what you’re writing about in an incident report. So, I can . . . it can go really fast, and it can go really, really slow. It really depends on how I’m feeling. But as far as, like, the logistics of it, I was writing . . . I ride a motorcycle on my commute back and forth to work. I had kind of started injuring the tendons in my hand, so typing was miserable, so I started using Dragon Dictation, and that worked pretty well. And I would do, you know, whenever I had an opportunity . . . .one of the things about police work in general, as far as being in the field, is you have ten-hour shifts, but you’re working four tens. So, you work for a few days, and you’ve got a few days off. So, I would ignore my responsibilities as a father and husband and sit down as long as I could and try and crank out some pages. I find it a lot easier to write to a contract than I do to write on spec, which is one of the reasons why Second Chance Angel, I think, really spun out fast for me because . . .the contract wasn’t necessarily for money, it was a contract between Kacey and I as both of us being similarly experienced writers and not wanting to let the other person down on this pet project that we had taken on for ourselves and that we were taking time out from other things that we might be able to do to work with one another. So, it was really important to me, just as a professional, to make sure I didn’t let her down. So, you know, I didn’t care, I was going to crank those letters and those words out that day any time I had an opportunity to work on Second Chance Angel.

Well, since we’re talking about that, and although Kacey gave her synopsis of it, somebody might not have heard that episode and is hearing about it for the first time. So, how would you describe Second Chance Angel?

A very noir mystery thriller set in a distant future with aliens and a lot of heart. And a little bit of excitement, too. There’s quite a bit going on, alien crime lords, et cetera. So, we touched on a lot of different stones in the subgenres of science fiction.

Did you alternate chapters or alternate scenes or decide who’s doing which scenes? How was that divided up between you?

So, we . . . it kind of fell naturally to us. I wrote the male Muck parts, and she wrote the Angel parts, the female . . . that sounds kind of vaguely dirty, doesn’t it? Angel parts. She wrote the A.I. Angel. As we closed in on a finish, I started to feel, and Kacey, as well, we started to feel like there was some difficulty with the . . . well, first off, the first-person perspective is a challenge for a full-length modern novel today, because people are expecting to have, you know, 100,000, 200,000 words in their inbox for their novel. We were coming in kind of slow on those numbers and were worried that that would be a problem. And then also, trying to tell the full story from only two perspectives, and they share a body, was a little bit challenging. So, we added in additional characters—characters that were already in, but we added them as a point of view characters. They were A.I.s that are not sentient. They are sophonts, but they’re not sentient. They don’t feel at the beginning of the novel. So, that was told in third person, and because they were administrative A.I.s and law-enforcement, they had a lot more data collection points to use for their point of view. And that was collaboratively written between the two of us.

Once you have a draft, either for yourself or for the collaborative novel, what did the revision process look like? Did you have beta readers or anything like that or not?

Yes, we’re both lucky enough that we have a lot of friends that are also writers and voracious readers. And I sent out . . . there’s a group of guys and gals that I have been, from World Fantasy, mostly . . . that I’ve been associated with for some time. We call ourselves the Breakfast Squad. We just basically hang out, drink too much, and make bad jokes in the mornings after. So, we get everybody up, and at breakfast we make inappropriate humor our métier. So, I sent it out to them, and all of them came back with positive, for the most part, and they had a couple of things that they found problematic, and we fixed those problematic issues and turned around, and I did principal editing, first pass, and then I think Kacey went through it again and then we sent it off to a publisher. That publisher turned us down. And we then went to our agent, Justin Bell at Spectrum Literary, and he turned around and shopped at about.

And it’s being published by . . .?

It’s Blackstone Publishing house who eventually picked it up, and they’ve put it out there, and it’s already out and swimming with the other fishes.

And Murphy’s Lawless, I presume, since it’s Caine Riordan, it’s Baen that publishes that?

No, actually. There’s only so much room in any publisher’s house for different stuff. And Chuck was looking around for places that he could put additional content for the Caine Riordan universe and contacted Chris Kennedy Publishing. And with Toni Weiskopf, the publisher and editor at Baen Books, they worked out a deal. And it’s like, “Yeah, cool, no problem. Go ahead and take this portion of the universe and play.” So, Chris Kennedy Publications did an imprint called Beyond Terra Books, and that’s what has published the Murphy’s Lawless series. So far, it’s only in one season, but they’re going to . . . we’re in the process now working on the second season, and the third season is planned, as well as Lost Signals, which is an anthology of mostly short stories—but it seems like every one of us went over the limit on the words—that was initially Kickstarted and then produced, is going to be republished with Beyond Terra Press. So, we’re excited about that, too.

What was the editorial process like for each of these books once it ended up at the publisher? What sorts of feedback did you get?

So, it’s been very different, depending on who it was with. So, Eric is, you know, he’s such an old hand with the editing of his work with co-authors, he generally tends to edit a lot of stuff upfront and then submit it to Toni and Baen, and they have a copyeditor go through it. But it seemed to me that it was harder to pass Eric for editing than it was to actually pass through to the Baen folks because they have a high degree of trust with him that he is going to furnish good copy and complete copy. When it came to the Murphy’s Lawless, sent it to Chuck, and then he sent it on once he was done editing it, and there were some challenges with the Maneater copy because I was going through, I’d had back surgery recently, and stuff like that, I was changing some of my medications, et cetera, so I was not just as focused as I would have liked to have been while I was writing that, although I do think it turned out really nicely. And Chuck had some editing to do with it and then gave it over to Mia Kleve at the Beyond Terra imprint, Chris Kennedy Publishing, and they turned around and got it out there real quick. With Second Chance Angel, it was . . . Blackstone Publishing hires some freelance writer editors, and they hired Betsy Mitchell.

Oh, right!

Yeah, it was a huge like, “Wow, really?” We were super excited that that was how it turned out. And she was just really great to work with. She made it a much, much better book with her work.

Well, as editors, good editors do. That’s kind of what they’re all about.

It was really, really neat. And I mean, it was neat working with her because she taught us a lot about how to, you know, how to . . . how simple changes in some of the things that we were doing would lead to much better throughput as far as understanding it, what was going on. ’Cause this is a pretty complex novel, too.

And it has some nice reviews, I see, on your website. So, you must have been pleased. Publishers Weekly and well, Eric Flint gave you a good review, and David . . . you mentioned Hammer’s Slammers, and there you have a review from David Drake.

Yeah, I get choked up when I even think about that, because, you know, he’s my idol.

Yes, it’s . . . one of the great things about this field is that you, you know, we all get started, and we read people that inspire us, and the next thing you know, you’re at World Fantasy or somewhere like that, and you’re actually meeting these people that were kind of far-off distant figures, and you find out they’re there, you know, real people that you can actually . . . 

Yeah, and they don’t have clay feet, necessarily. They don’t necessarily have clay feet.  So, yeah, Dave was . . . I didn’t really . . . I think I read a couple of books by him, Hammer’s Slammers, beforehand, but I got into one of the anthologies when I was living in Switzerland. And, you know . . . we moved there in the summer, so school hadn’t started. So, I had, you know, zero friends for the most part, although there was one or two that I ended up meeting before school started. But, I had a lot of time on my hands and went down to the English language media store, which is called Elm Books, the anagram of their name, and I picked up, I think, The War World and . . . I can’t remember the name of it now, I just wrote about it the other day . . . but by David Drake and you know, to have him, so he was my buddy, he was writing stuff that I really wanted to read, and he was my buddy in my mind as far as narrating life. So, it was really huge for me to eventually meet him again through World Fantasy and Borderlands books. I ended up driving him around San Francisco to look at the Diego Rivera murals and that kind of stuff and just kind of hanging out and being careful not to tell him that, “I just love your work!” or descending into that kind of . . . it’s really hard when a stranger comes up to you and says, “I love you!”, you know, so you don’t want to go there as a fan. And I managed to keep my fanboy in check. And we’ve been buddies ever since. It’s been a real pleasure. And when I, with great temerity and worried about it, when I wrote him to ask him to write, to read it, he not only read it, but he enjoyed it and offered a blurb. A huge deal.

You talked about all the places you’ve lived, and of course, you’ve done lots of things. And then a police officer for the last 20 years. You did mention how working as a police officer has perhaps influenced things a bit. Do you feel that all that experience, that living experience you have, has made you a stronger writer?

Yeah, there’s no doubt in my mind that, you know . . . part of the reason why I joined the department wasn’t just for a regular paycheck, but also, you know, I wanted to have some stories. Experience informs everybody’s work. You can be a great writer and tell some really cool tales as a youngster. But I think that there is a lot to be said for your experience, life experience, and how you process those experiences can inform your work quite a bit. Certainly, for me, I don’t think I had anywhere near the talent to be able to compensate for my lack of experience when I started.

Do you feel you’re improving all the time?

Oh, yeah, definitely. If you stop learning, you’re failing. I feel like it’s . . . everything can teach you quite a bit. And part of the cool thing about collaborative work, too, is that you can learn from your co-authors immensely if you have an open ear to do so.

Are you very different as writers, the two of you?

Yeah, I think that Kacey is magnificent at emotional impact and emotionally impactful scenes. I am much less so. So, I really picked up a few things from her as far as that and then, you know . . . oftentimes when guys try and write romance, it ends up just being a little bit like porn. Or most guys. One of the things I learned from her is that . . . because there’s a strong vein of romance in this, and I think I learned quite a bit about how to portray that without being, you know, physical, being so utterly reliant on physical description.

Well, we’re getting about, right about 10 minutes left here, so we’ll take the big philosophical questions. Why do you do it? Why do you write? Why do you think anybody writes? And why write science fiction and fantasy type stuff specifically?

Number one, specifically, is a lifelong love affair with it, with the genre. You know, it’s the ultimate in anything’s possible. If you can imagine it and make it plausible, you can make it possible in your work. So, that is really cool and unmatched, I think, in any other genre. With regard to why I write, I am a lot healthier when I’m writing and getting my mat out on the page rather than in my interpersonal relationships with others.

One of the things about my profession, especially in recent years and this last year, is that we are expected to be held to a standard that is very, very difficult to adhere to, first off, and secondly, it is extremely difficult when you do adhere to it to not appear as if you’re doing otherwise, because the ignorant or those that are only partially educated in what it is we do will often see something, and violence looks like violence. It looks bad. People don’t go beyond the appearance of things very much in this day and age of “the feels” to understand that the legal justifications and the legal situation that these officers often find themselves in is difficult, and it does not have the benefit of armchair quarterbacking or hindsight. It has to be done right now, in this moment. So, one of the things that the writing allows me to do is to kind of explain that and to work out some of my own feelings about situations that I’ve been in and difficulties that I’ve had on the job and personally.

And why do you think we write, any of us write? Why do you think there’s this impulse to tell stories?

Well, I think it’s one of the ways we relate things that work and things that don’t. And it’s also one of the ways that . . . you know, Dave’s a good example, Dave always talks about getting his mad out and, you know, coming back from Vietnam and not being able to talk about it. And some people find avenues to talk about it through speaking to other veterans or speaking to other people and whatever workplace that they have or, you know, support groups, that kind of thing. And some people need to write about it, and they need to explore their perspectives, that the voices in their own heads are telling them they need to talk to or talk about these things. So, I think it’s always a good thing that storytellers are how we communicate knowledge about the world and how we think it works. And for the storyteller themselves, it’s often a good way to process feelings that are otherwise troublesome.

Well, the podcast is called The Worldshapers, and I always say it’s a little grand to think of any story as particularly shaping the entire world, but certainly, stories can shape individual readers. So, when you’re writing, do you have any hope for how it might affect your readers? When they come away from your stories, what do you hope they take with them?

Well, this particular one, Second Chance Angel, is very important to me that people realize that trauma and dealing with trauma is . . . there are a number of different ways to handle it, and you can be a highly successful individual handling it, processing it and getting it, you know, working on it rather than suppressing it or not trying to think about those kinds of things. There’s a lot of different ways to deal with, to effectively deal with, trauma and issues that arise from trauma that include, rather than preclude, you doing well in your profession and in your relationships with others. So, if there’s anything that I would like people to kind of get is, there’s other people going through the same stuff that need to process it and that there are other people out there in the world that will listen.

And at the same time, I presume you’re hoping to entertain?

Yes. You know, most people are going to look at this and are going to go, “Really? I mean, there’s like there’s a singer on the cover and squiggly alien heads and stuff like that. This guy’s reaching pretty far.” But yes, the ultimate and primary goal is to tell a good story. And along the way, I would like for people to gather or take from it that there’s a lot of ways to heal thyself. And they usually include actually tackling the problem head-on, and they do not preclude getting better at your profession.

What are you working on next?

So Kacey and I just finished the outline and first couple of chapters for The Third Sin, which is the sequel to Second Chance Angel, which has a couple of references there to both the noir genre and a certain robot A.I., a famous guy’s work, certain laws of robotics, and we’re excited to be beginning work on that. I have been working on an epic fantasy for 12 years now, so I’m trying to close in on the finish of that. But I’m also rehabbing from my back injury and trying to get back to work, etc., so there’s quite a bit of stuff going on that’s slowing me down a little bit. But we’re also doing that second season of Murphy’s Lawless, and I’m hoping to have a story in that. I’ve got a bunch of short fiction that has come out in the last year. I’m hoping to get more opportunities to write short stories, as well. So, there’s a lot of different openings.

Is Second Chance Angel seen as a trilogy or endless series, or what’s the idea there?

Yeah, there’s no . . . that was one of the things that is kind of important to note, too, is that one of the things that Jim Baen, the original and the man that built Baen Books, one of the things he said to Eric Flint as related to me by Eric was, the best way to not have a series is to try and write your first novel in that series as if you have a series. So, write a complete story, write a complete novel that indicates that, you know, that it’s discrete, and the reader goes away happy. So, we tried do that with Second Chance Angel. I think we accomplished it. But we are wide open. We have got . . . we did a lot of worldbuilding in Second Chance Angel, and there’s a lot of mystery left to for both Angel and Muck to unravel and fight and suffer through. So, we are very hopeful that we’re going to be able to do a long-running series with it as long as the readers are willing to buy it and publishers want to publish it. We have no specific thing about, like, it’s going to be a five-story arc or a five-novel arc, that kind of thing. But we have the next one outlined, as I said, and we have a precis for the third one, which is tentatively titled The First Question. Because we like to mess with people’s numbering systems.

Yeah, I was just thinking that. The first one is Second Chance Angel, the third one, no, the second one is The Third Sin, and then the fourth . . .

The third one is going to be The First Question, and the fourth, I don’t know, we’re going to have to get creative on that one.

Use a fraction.

Or Four Score, or something like that. But yeah, we had a lot of fun, and we hope that people really enjoy it. It’s my favorite work, I think, so far, because I really got to . . . with Kacey, she and I basically just sat down, and we built a universe, whereas with everything else I’ve done in the past collaboratively, it was done, I was the guy, the journeyman, coming into the master’s arena. So, this was really cool to be masters of our own universe, to be able to just kind of go, “This is really cool to me,” and then hash it out between the two of us as equals rather than as one of us being previously established and the holder of the I.P.

And where can people find you, and more about the book, online?

So griffinbarber.com, and on Facebook as Griffin Barber and Twitter as @TheRantingGriffin and @GriffinBarber as well. Baldilocks is one of the nicknames I’m going with now because I am bald. Yeah, and accessible at any time to chat about stuff. I really enjoyed this, so I appreciate you giving us the opportunity to come on the show and talk about worldbuilding.

Well, you were recommended to me by Dave Butler at Bean Books, who’s been on the show and whom I met at a convention.

Yes, he’s a great guy. I met him, too.

One of the few authors I could truly say I looked up to because I’m 6’2” and he’s . . . more than that.

Yes, he is. He’s a great guy, too. He’s been really neat to get to know.

Yeah. I’ve enjoyed getting to know him a little bit myself. Well, I think that brings us to the end of the podcast. So, thanks so much for being on. I enjoyed that. I hope you did, too.

I did!

All right. Well, bye for now.

Bye for now.

Episode 27: Eric Flint

An hour-long conversation with Eric Flint, New York Times-bestselling author of the Ring of Fire alternate-history series, which began with 1632, and more than 50 other science-fiction and fantasy novels, both on his own and in collaboration, as well as many pieces of short fiction and dozens of anthologies.


Eric’s Public Page

Eric’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Eric Flint’s writing career began with the science-fiction novel Mother of Demons. With David Drake, he has collaborated on the six-volume Belisarius series, as well as a novel entitled The Tyrant. His alternate-history novel 1632 was published in 2000 and has led to a long-running series with many novels and anthologies in print. In addition, he’s written a number of science fiction and fantasy novels, and now has more than 50 novels in print, as well as many pieces of short fiction and dozens of anthologies that he’s edited. He currently resides in Northwest Indiana with his wife, Lucille.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, welcome to The Worldshapers, Eric.

Thank you.

We met very, very briefly at DragonCon last year, which was the first time I had ever been to DragonCon—I found it a bit overwhelming, but I did find the Baen Books table and actually signed up a couple of people to be guests, and you’re one of the ones that I talked to there. Other than that, we’ve never crossed paths, I don’t think, at conventions anywhere, or anything like that.

Not that I recall, no.

Well, we’ll get into 1632 a little bit later, and the Ring of Fireseries, but I always like to start off by taking people back—and I always say this, “into the mists of time,” to find out how you first became interested…well, first of all, in science fiction and fantasy, probably as a reader, because that’s how we almost all start, and then how you got around to trying your hand at writing and how that all worked out for you. So, when did you first become interested in the field?

Well, I started reading science fiction when I was about 12 years old, I think. My mother bought me a copy of, a hardcover copy of one of those Winston juveniles, of Robert Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy, and I was very taken by it. And shortly thereafter I remember reading Andre Norton’s Star Rangers, and I also remember reading…it has two titles. The one that it was originally published under was The Survivors and its re-title is Space Prison. It was written by Tom Godwin. And those three books really got me into it, and after that I would read everything I could get in the school library. I started writing science fiction when I was about 14, and I kept writing it through high school. I once had a very nice rejection letter from John Campbell, whose handwritten, two-page letter, which I lost decades ago—I feel bad about now—at the time, to me, was just a rejection letter, you know. I don’t know who Campbell was. Then I did some more writing in college and then I stopped writing pretty much for about 25 years, and then I started again when I was in my mid-40s. I had one novel that I had started and not finished and it kept nagging at me, and when I reached the age of 44, I think, I just realized I didn’t want to be lying on my deathbed regretting the fact that I never tried to finish the book. So, I went ahead and finished it.

In 1992 I took a part of that novel and rewrote it as a short story and submitted it to the Writers of the Future contest, and it won first place in the winter quarter of 1992. And that’s really what got my career off the ground. I didn’t publish anything else for four years. I tried several times, but with short stories, but I’m really not…I’m really a novelist. I finally just said, “Oh, to hell with it,” and I just concentrated on writing novels. I finished the novel that I’d started back in…Jesus, when was it…I started when I was 22 years old, back in 1969. I got that one finished. I submitted…I got an agent. She warned me, she liked the book, but she warned me it was going to be a very hard book to sell, which it proved to be. After a couple of years, I told her take it off the market because there’s no point just racking up rejection slips.

I had written in the meantime a much more straightforward science-fiction novel called Mother of Demons. And so, we started shopping that around, and that’s actually my second book I wrote, first one I sold, Baen Books decided to buy it in 1996 and it was published in September of ’97. And right at the same time, Jim Baen offered me a collaborative series with David Drake, which became the Belisarius series. And that’s what I worked on next. That wound up being six books. I did the first four back to back, right in a row, didn’t work on anything else. And then I wrote my next solo novel. which was 1632, which came out in the year 2000, and my career took off quite rapidly after that.

Well, going back to when you were first writing as a as a kid, did you have people who encouraged you along the way, or were you sharing it with other, you know, with your friends, and finding out that you could tell stories, or…? What were you doing back then?

Well, in high school I was sharing it with girlfriend, not, pretty much, anybody else. She was quite supportive. My mother was, too, and a more distant…you know, somewhat greater distance. I was quite self-contained, so I didn’t really talk much, either. There’s a line…early in my life that said there’s nothing quite as ridiculous as an unpublished author and I sort of always kind of felt that way, so I didn’t really talk much about it until I get published. I talked more about it in college because that novel I started was originally a collaborative project for me and three of my friends, two of whom dropped off fairly early. The second one, Richard Roach, has stayed with that project ever since. The novel, the first one I wrote, is actually a collaborative novel with him. So, obviously I’d talked it over with them because we were all working together.

You started collaborating early.

Oh, yeah, very early. You know, not in high school, but once I got to college.

You actually studied history at college. Did any of that ever play into your fiction or did just the mere study of it help you when it came to writing some of your…?

Almost all of my fiction, one way or another, is historically rooted. That’s obviously true of the alternate history, which is what I’m best known for. Now, alternate history represents a little less than half of what I write, so I write a lot of other stuff. But, for instance, my science-fiction novel The Course of Empire is modeled after, or inspired after, my thinking about the Roman conquest of the Greeks. My first novel, Mother of Demons, is based on episodes in southern Balkan history, in the late 18th, early 19th century, which is what I was studying in college. Americans don’t recognize it. My friend Dave Freer is South African, he spotted it right away. That’s just generally true, that I’ll look to historical models as the basis for telling a story, even though the story itself might not technically be an historical fiction, but straight science fiction, but it’s going to almost always have an historical basis to it. So, yeah, I’ve been, in that sense, an historian my whole life.

Now I like to ask authors, because some have and some haven’t and some who have wished they hadn’t…have you ever had any formal creative-writing training?

I took a course in creative writing in junior college one semester. The teacher was quite nice, and I learned some about the use of language. The problem is…the problem with creative-writing courses is that they can sometimes be helpful teaching you how to write, but they’re not usually very helpful at all in terms of teaching you how to tell a story, which is not the same skill They overlap but they’re not the same. And, from the point of view of being commercially successful, it’s being able to tell a story that really matters, not so much how well you write. So, I took one semester of that. I don’t regret taking it, but I can’t say it particularly helped me much.

Yeah, I get a variety of answers on that. A lot of authors who write science fiction and fantasy in particular found that it was not something that their creative-writing teachers were comfortable with or supportive of in any way, and there was often some conflict along the way, when they were trying to write that kind of thing in a creative-writing session.

Well, that was certainly true in the time I was going through college. That was way back in the ’60. Today, there’s a lot more flexibility in the academic world toward genre fiction in general, science fiction in particular, but in those days there wasn’t. I knew a case of a professor who actually got fired from  a college because they found out he’d published a mystery novel, which he did under a pseudonym, but they, you know, the word leaked out. So…you know, there’s that. I think…I don’t know, I think the bigger problem is simply that…it depends on your orientation. What’s called literary fiction is today a genre of its own. It’s very rigid, it has all kinds of tropes you pretty much have to follow, and I personally would find it quite stultifying. And a lot of great literature of the past wouldn’t fit into it all. My first novel written, Forward the Mage, is based on the satires of the 17th and 18th centuries, which were fantasies, most of them. That’s what it was based on. But it would have been hard to try to get that through in a kind of literary [fashion].

Now during the 25 years that you weren’t writing, you were doing a lot of things: meatpacker, longshoreman, truck driver, auto forge worker, glassblower. That’s a lot of practical hands-on experience doing things that a lot of writers aren’t exposed to. We do get a lot of writers who have had a lot of odd jobs over the course of their career. Do you find that having had that sort of, I don’t know, I want to call it salt-of-the-earth, I guess, experience, does that feed into your fiction?

Yeah. Particularly the 1632 series…

Yeah, I notice it there, for sure.

Yeah, that’s probably where you see the most. That town of Grantville is actually very closely modelled on the town of Mannington, West Virginia. I lived in that area for about a year and a half. I find one thing that tends to be absent…not entirely, but it’s pretty thin on the ground in science fiction…is the working class. It’s…they kind of show up as spear carriers, if they show up at all. And I just wanted to write a story whose protagonists were, you know, not engineers, not Navy SEALs, you know, just working stiffs. And that’s pretty much who populates, well, the American characters who populate the 1632 series. Once the time-travel event happens it gets broader than that. There are kings and cardinals and all kinds of other people get into it. But the town itself was just a small coal-mining town in northern West Virginia.

Did you ever work in a coal mine?

No. I tried when I lived there. I always wondered why anyone worked in a coal mine, and when I got to West Virginia I discovered real quick that it was the only job that paid worth a damn. So, I went through the course—you have to go through an 80-hour course in main safety. I went through it, got my certificate, but they were not hiring at the time. So, I wound up kicking around a machine shop, driving a cab, doing shape-up at glass factories. That’s where I learned some parts of glassblowing.

Well, my big brother actually did work in a coal mine, although it was an open-pit mine, it wasn’t an underground mine. But he had worked in an underground mine, a nickel mine in northern Manitoba. So, he has some of that experience. And I actually recently wrote the history, a history of the mine-rescue competition that they run every year here in Saskatchewan, so I hung out with the volunteers that do that kind of mine safety and mine rescue. That was very interesting, to talk to those guys.

So, well, let’s talk about 1632, because we’re going to kind of focus on that as an example of your creative process. I’ll let you give the synopsis so I don’t give away something that shouldn’t be given away to somebody who somehow hasn’t managed to read any of the books yet.

Well, the basic premise is really quite simple. There is a cosmic act, the nature of which I explain in a three-page preface, which is just handwaving. This is just a MacGuffin to get the story going. I thought I came up with a clever one. But it’s essentially a cosmic accident that causes a time transposition event, where a chunk of the modern United States—and by modern we’re talking about the year 2000, because that’s when I wrote the book—Is transposed in time and place into the middle of Germany in the year 1631, which is right smack in the middle of the Thirty Years War, which was probably the most destructive war in European history, at least since the collapse of the Roman Empire. So, what happens is, this small town, about 3,500 people, just literally materializes, about a six-mile diameter. and finds itself in the middle of that part of Germany. It’s called Thuringia, which during the Cold War would have been the southern part of East Germany. And they find themselves in the middle of one of the greatest wars of history, which went on…it wasn’t really a war, it was a whole running cascade of wars. It went on for 30 years. It’s estimated that possibly a quarter of the population of Central Europe died in that war. So, basically, what the series is about is simply, all right, you’ve got 3,500 Americans from the year 2000, with whatever resources they had in this small town…and I was very strict about the resources available. The basic rule, which I’ve applied ever since and everyone who writes in that universe has to obey it, is that if you can find something in Mannington, the real town of Mannington, then you can put it in Grantville, but if it’s not there, you can’t. The one exception, what we call “wild cards,” which is…I will allow a certain number of those. What I mean by “wild cards” is, for instance, in the second novel, 1633, my co-author, David Weber, and I introduced an aircraft designer who builds an actual plane. Well, the odds of there being a retired aeronautical engineer in a small town or low, but any small town in America with 3,500 people in it is going to have a certain number of people that aren’t likely to be there, but they are. So, I allow that as long as people don’t overdo it.

So, that’s the basic premise. All the books have followed, and we are now up to…Baen Books has published—I really lose count—I think we’re up to 24 novels, with the one I just wrote that just was published last month. That’s 24 novels that Baen publishes, and I have my own publishing house, called Ring of Fire Press, and we publish, also publish, stuff in the series, and there’s another probably dozen novels that we’ve published. In addition, there are 12 anthologies of short fiction in paper, and back in, 12 years ago, we launched a magazine, an electronic magazine called the Grantville Gazette, that’s been in operation now for 12 years. It’s a professional magazine, it’s recognized by the science fiction writers’ association as a qualified professional venue. It’s made a profit for 12 years. It’s become a very big, sprawling enterprise. And by now, something like 200 people have written something in this setting, most of them just one or two stories, but…most of my co-authors, quite a few of them, are actually people who started as fans and sort of learned to write within the series. And if they got good enough, and I thought they were ready for it, I’d offer them, you know, I’d ask if they wanted to try their hand at collaborating on a novel, and that’s where most of my authors—not all of them, but most of my collaborative authors—actually began, that way, not as established professionals.

Well, it’s been 20 years, then, since you wrote the first one. Do you remember what the initial seed of the idea was that gave birth to all this?

Yeah, I had…just from living in the area…I can’t remember how far back the idea came to me. I’d had the idea for a long, long time that a small coal-mining town would make a terrific collective protagonist in some kind of adventure. I just couldn’t figure out the adventure. And then, years later, I was working with David Drake and he had a new novel he wanted to do, and I was originally going to co-author, it wound up eventually being someone else, but the basic premise of that novel is near-future, and it was posited that China had broken up and Vietnam and southern China were about to go to war, and a band of alien mercenaries show up and offer their services to the Vietnamese using an American intermediary who lives in Hanoi, he’s an expatriate, he used to be…he was, is, a Vietnam veteran. David did not develop the…he had the plot well-developed, but he didn’t develop the background of the alien mercenaries. And I asked him if he minded if I fleshed it out, and he said, “No, go ahead.” So, I started thinking, “Well, I’ll use a historical model, just to give me a framework,” which is what I usually do. And the great era in modern times of…well, “modern,” using the term broadly…of mercenary armies was the Renaissance and what’s called the early modern period, and they were very prominent in the Thirty Years War.

So, it had been many, many years—decades—since I’d read anything about the Thirty Years War. I don’t think I read anything about it since a little bit in college. So, I decided to study it, and I started reading…there’s a classic narrative history by C.V. Wedgewood called The Thirty Years War, and I picked it up and started reading it, and about halfway through it dawned on me that this would be the perfect setting for my…that collective protagonist. And that’s where the idea came from. I then sat down and developed it into a plot and submitted it to Jim Baen at Baen Books. He liked it, and it took off.

How does that look for you, when you develop an idea into a plot? Or you a staunch outliner…what exactly do you do?

Yes. I outline quite thoroughly. What I will wind up with is a chapter-by-chapter outline of the book—not lengthy: I do it on an Excel sheet and my rule is that each chapter has to be summarized in one line, so I don’t get long-winded. I just want to capture the heart of it. I don’t start there. I start with thinking it through. But, yeah, before I start writing, I try to have the story well-plotted out. In the course of writing, things change—that always happens—and that outline will, to some degree or another, get transmuted, although it never gets transmuted too much, because you have to have a coherent story arc, and if you don’t have an ending and a beginning and the link between, you don’t actually have a story. So, nothing tremendous changes, but things can change.

For instance, in 1632, the book actually ends three months before I’d planned to end it. I’d planned to end with the Battle of Whitsun, which took place in the fall of 1632. But after I wrote the big scene at the high school, big battle at the high school, I realized I’d actually resolved all the issues there. So, I called up Jim on the phone and said, “Jim, I actually think this book is finished.” So, he said, “Let me see it.” I sent it to him, and he said, “Yeah, you’re right. This is where we should end it.” So, you know, you might not necessarily end at exactly the same place, but the basic…the ending is the same in the sense of what it resolves, let’s put it that way.

How long would your outline be when you complete one, ready to start writing?

It depends. If I’m submitting an outline as a proposal to a publisher, where they want something, it’ll be around, I don’t know, 3,000 to 7,000 words. If I’m just doing it for myself I tend to do a lot of the initial outlining just in my own head, and I don’t start really putting stuff on paper until I’m ready to actually do this final chapter-by-chapter outline. But by the time I get to that point I’ve thought about it a lot.

I liked something in your frequently asked questions on your website where you made a distinction between, you know…a plot is not just a sequence of events, it’s an actual structure, a skeleton that you hang a story on, and I liked that distinction, because when you’re plotting, when you’re a young writer, a beginning writer, and you’re plotting, it is easy to try to, you know, “Well, I’ll just add on a bunch of things that happen and then somehow I’ll have a story,” but a story is more than that, isn’t it?”

Yeah, yeah, it’s …the way I try to explain this to people is have them do a mental experiment. Just write down everything that happened to you yesterday, from the time you woke up to the time you fell asleep. Just, you know, write it all down, like a story. Do you have a story? And the answer is, no, you don’t have a story. You just have a sequence of events. It’s not…I mean, it’s coherent, there’s reasons for everything you did, but there’s no beginning to it. There’s no end to it. Every story has some kind of conflict of some kind that has to be resolved by the end of it, at least to a degree. That’s…I don’t think there’s ever been a story, at least not a  story that very many people are going to read very often, that doesn’t have that characteristic. And when I write, the first thing I start with is actually not a plot or characters. I start with figuring out…a conflict, basically. And since my interests tend to be very social and political, in my case it’s usually a social or political conflict of some kind that I’m interested in and think is important, and then I just start thinking about it and figuring out ways that you could put that into fiction. That’s where the 1632series came from. And then I start working my way down in, you know, different levels of concreteness, as far as developing goes.

One of the points…you often hear writers say they write character-driven stories. And there are many who think they’re working that way, and consciously they are, but if they’re any good what they’re really doing is plotting without realizing it, because the thing is this: what makes a character a character is what they do. And if you don’t know what they do, then you don’t have a plan. So, you really have to have a plot to develop a character in the first place. Otherwise, what you’ve got is not really a character, it’s just a collection of personality traits. And what kills more stories is just that they ramble around and don’t seem to have much point to them and eventually just sort of come to an end. But…when I was editor of Jim Baen’s Universe Magazine, I…the stories that got up to me had to get through readers, so that they were, they were well-written, I mean, they weren’t badly written, those would be rejected before I ever saw them. But the most common reason I would reject a story is just because it…there was nothing wrong, the writing was usually quite competent, and there was nothing really wrong with the story, exactly, but there was nothing right with it either. I mean, you know, it just wasn’t much of a story. And it’s hard to explain that. If there’s any one single talent to being an author that’s hard to teach anyone, it’s how to recognize what’s a good story and what isn’t. That’s the place where talent itself really comes in. I can teach people pretty much everything else, but that’s hard to teach.

You mentioned characters. How do you…how do you identify the characters that you need in the story, and then how do you…how much do you work on developing them before you start the actual writing?

Well, I don’t know. I mean, the characters kind of emerge, just in the process of thinking about a plot. Honestly, I’ve never had any trouble coming up with characters. It’s not something I have to spend any time really thinking much about, except—the one time I do have to think about it is if I want to use an actual historical figure. For instance, the series I’ve started, there’s two books in it, and I will within a year be starting a third one, and it’s a series set in Jacksonian America. It’s all from history. The first book’s called 1812: The Rivers of War, and the second one is called 1824: The Arkansas War. And…it’s written during the Jacksonian era, and one of the main characters in the series is Andrew Jackson. And I studied Andrew…and also, the central hero is Sam Houston. So, you know, this is where I was working with real people, I mean, this is not characters I invented, so I had to…I read…Jesus, I don’t know…half a dozen biographies of Houston and a whole lot of Andrew Jackson, to figure out if I could work with them, you know, in fiction, and I became comfortable that I could. And I’m pleased with the result, but that’s where you do have to spend some time thinking about it, because, you know, you have to stay reasonably true to what we know of the person’s character. You’re not just inventing something.

Well, and you have mentioned somewhere in what you had in your website, as well, that for 1632, the research could be quite intensive because you’re writing about a real period in history. I think somewhere you mentioned you would sometimes take an hour to write one paragraph because of the research you had to do to make sure you got all the facts right that were in that paragraph.

Yeah, sometimes. Yeah, that happens. I mean, happily with something like the 16…that problem has gotten less and less as time goes on, partly because…well, there’s a number of reasons, one of them is, it’s an alternate history, so the further you go, the more the history has changed, so it’s hard for anybody to prove me wrong. The second is I just get more and more familiar with it. And the third is that by now that series has a very active and dedicated…I don’t even want to call it a fan base, because a lot of these people are much more than fans, many have become writers themselves, and it’s an important project for them, too. You know, it’s become a very collaborative effort on the part of a lot of people, and a lot of those people know things I don’t know. So, you know…one of the major writers, Virginia DeMarce, with whom I’ve co-authored two novels…she has her Ph.D., and basically she’s a specialist in the social history of 17th-century Germany. I mean, you know, her knowledge of it is way deeper than mine. That’s the kind of thing you don’t get from just reading books. I mean, you have to read, do the kind of studying that an actual professor does.

So, I try to develop friends and contacts who are experts on all kinds of things, who are people I can go to if I need to find out something. If any issue comes up involving guns, I will run it by Larry Correia and David Drake, every single time, just to make sure I’m not making some mistake. I’m fairly familiar with guns, but they’re complex, and so…I used to, unfortunately she passed away a few years ago, I used to have Karen Bergstralh, who was an expert horsewoman, so anything involving horses I would run it by Karen to make sure I wasn’t missing something, because there’s a lot of things about horses that people think they know or understand, but they really don’t.

Yeah, I’ve heard that from horse people many times, about how horses in books don’t have much relationship to real horses.

No, they don’t, they don’t. Movies are even worse. So, with something like the 1632 series that’s gone on for 20 years, that makes life a lot easier for me, than if it’s something new I’m starting with, then I kind of have to do all the, you know, the initial spadework myself.

One thing I like to ask series writers…the longest thing I’ve written is a five-book young adult series, which was only about 300,000 words in total, and yet, I started to find that there were, you know, concerns about continuity and occasionally writing something in a sort of a throwaway that comes back to bite you later. Have you ever encountered anything like that in your in your series?

Oh, sure. I have a saying, and my friends and co-authors, I’ve said it so many times that they like to repeat it, but the motto is, “Vague is your friend.” And what I mean by that is that 95 percent of what’s in a novel is put there by the reader, not the author. A novel is not a photograph, it’s much, much more like a pointillist painting, where the artist is giving you a framework, but a lot of it you’re filling in yourself. And, the thing you do is… some things you’re very concrete about, very specific, if you know you’re right about it. Then you put in some very detailed and, you know, nail it down, cross all the “T”s, dot the “I”s, and so on and so forth. If you do that fairly often, then the reader feels secure that they’re in a real story, and what they don’t really notice is how often you’re vague about what exactly, where exactly it’s happening, when exactly it’s happening, who exactly might be around there, so that you don’t have that problem…which you can have even a single novel, much less a series, of discovering you’ve stumbled over your own, what you’ve already put down. But, yeah, I try not to.

It’s a lesson I got from Jim Baen, he died years ago, but he was my publisher. He said, “Don’t tell the readers anything they don’t need to know and don’t tell it to them until they need to know it.” And that’s pretty much a rule I’ve tried to follow. And don’t put something in just because you researched it and you know it, and so, what the hell, you’re gonna put it in. Every scene in a novel should be part of the plot. And we all get a little loose and sloppy about that, including me. I mean, we’ll all write some scenes that are just there for the fun of it. But in theory, at least, and I did try to pay attention to this, every episode, every plot point, I mean, every scene in a novel, most of it at any rate, what is it doing to advance the plot? And if the answer is, it’s not doing anything to advance a plot, then why is it in the story? There another saying I like, which was invented…not invented by me, it’s by Anton Chekhov. It’s called Chekhov’s Dictum, which is…he was the great Russian playwright…and it was, “If there’s a shotgun on the mantelpiece in the beginning of Act One in the play, it needs to have figured somehow in the story by the end of Act Three, or it doesn’t belong there in the first place.” And that’s something that that I think you need to follow, and I find a lot of writers don’t. There’s a lot of novels out there that are honestly pretty ramshackle. There’s just all kinds of baggage in there that really isn’t doing much of anything.

Well, when you have written a draft, what does your revision process look like? Do you bang out a first draft and then go back, and do you revise a lot, do you keep it revised as you go, or how does that work for you?

I’m fortunate in that I have…I sort of have the authorial equivalent of perfect pitch. Typically, a chapter I write is the final draft. Now, I will polish continuously as I go along. What I mean by that is, after a day or two or three, I’ll go back and reread and, you know, I’ll polish the prose, but I’m hardly ever rewriting the actual chapter. Occasionally I get a chapter that I just decide didn’t work and I’ll just scrap it altogether. But I don’t do the kind of rewriting that a lot of authors do. And the reason I don’t is just ’cause I found I really don’t need to. I’m lucky that way. I mean, it’s not…it’s like perfect pitch for a musician, you’re lucky if you have it, but if not, you know, it’s not something you learn. But it enables me to write pretty quickly. I do polish all the time. I mean, I’m constantly going back over, but when I’m looking for there is specific word usage, that kind of thing, not changing or rewriting major plot points and so on.

And I see, from your website, again, that once you start writing you just write through, like, you sort of write in a burst to finish the book?

Yeah, I…yes. I don’t…writers all have different work habits. There are some writers who religiously write every day and they set goals, you know, 500 words a day, whatever. I don’t write like that. I will…when I get rolling in a novel I’ll start really getting into it and I will…pretty much, that’s what I’m doing. And then, once the novel is finished, I’ll take several weeks off before I try to start writing anything else. Now in my case, because I do so much collaborative writing, I’m not…it’s not like I’m not busy, because my co-authors will have drafts they want me to look at, you know, so there is a lot of editing work I do also, and I’ll do that, but I don’t try to…and I don’t ever try to write two novels at the same time.

Speaking of editing, do you get much in the way of editorial revision then, coming back from Baen, or suggestions?

The only time I’ve gotten…I’m trying to think. Mostly when I get editorial input from Baen, it’s actually not at the novel stage, it’s at the proposal stage. For instance, my friend and co-author David Carrico and I submitted a proposal for a science fiction novel called Hydra to Toni Weisskopf…oh, it’s been over a year now…and she read it, and she had problems with a number of pieces, parts, of it, and she laid it out: “This doesn’t seem to work to me, that doesn’t…”, and so we did a pretty major rewrite of the proposal, because I agreed with her points. So, that’s mostly where I get the input. Once the story’s written, the only time I’ve gotten a lot of input, was early on…I think it was the third Belisariusbook, which was about the fourth novel I wrote. Toni Weisskopf, who was then the chief editor, did a very detailed line edit of the novel. But what she was trying to do was show me was…I had certain tics and habits as a writer I wasn’t even aware of…

I think we all do.

Yeah, and she was just going through and showing them to me so I could see it. And I learned a great deal from that. It was very helpful. That’s the only time I’ve had that. I did get a lot of input from Jim on 1632. He was very taken by that book and he worked more closely with me on that book than any other I ever did. I would send him…once I’d written a few chapters I’d send it to him and he’d read it and get back to me. So, that…there was a lot of editorial feedback. It wasn’t…he wasn’t sending anything…he wasn’t sending me manuscripts with red ink on them. We’d talk on the phone. And I did two books with Del Rey. I got a lot of editorial input from Steve Saffel and later from Jim Minz. Steve edited the first book, Jim edited the second. And…that’s kind of it.

Well, we’re getting a little short on time here, because I know you have to break off here in a few minutes, so I do want to get the big philosophical question out, which is, “Why do you do this, and why do you think any of us do this? Why do we write science fiction and fantasy?”

Well, I’ve always been interested…I’ve always been interested, and I’ve always enjoyed it. So, when I considered, you know, when I decided I was going to write again, I didn’t really have to think about whether I was going to write science fiction or something else. I just figured I’d have a lot more artistic leeway and freedom in science fiction than I would in anything else, which was true. In my case…my whole life, I was a political activist for close to 30 years, which is why I stopped writing, and…issues of, social issues in general, how human society works, the moral and ethical issues and values that come out of that, are things that have been central to my life ever since I was a kid. And that’s, one way or another, usually what I’m writing about in my novels.

Now, I’m writing novels to entertain people, so I’m not trying to beat anybody over the head with my own specific political viewpoint. And I think fiction is really lousy at that anyway. I can explain why—it takes some detail—but there’s a contradiction between the way political theory works and the way fiction works, which is that, if you want to analyze things as a politician or as a campaign manager or whatever, you have to abstract the individual out of the equation. You have to, because if you don’t, everybody’s different and you can’t…so you have to take a look and see, however you’re dividing up the population, it might be by class, it might be by gender, it might be by race, it might be by whatever. You have to abstract the individual out of it and be talking in some sense about social abstractions.

You can’t write fiction like that. Stories are about individual people, and they have to seem like people to readers. They have to seem real. And if they’re just clanking around like stereotypes, it doesn’t work. People don’t like that. For one thing, they get irritated if you happen to be stamping all over their particular viewpoint, but leaving that aside, it’s just not attractive. So that means you have to find individual characters, and once you start doing that they tend to get quirky. They tend to…well, let me not turn this into a lecture, but the upshot of it is this: fiction is lousy for educating anybody about politics, but what it is very good at is imparting broad moral and ethical values. There are certain values I have that are reflected, one or another, in almost any book I write. And…obviously the first thing you have to do is entertain people, because that’s why they’re reading a book, they want to be entertained, but I try to do more than that. And it varies from one book to the next, what I’m particularly trying to portray. But I’m trying to portray something…every good writer I know is doing that, to one extent or another and to one degree of consciousness or another. I know very few writers, that includes genre writers who are just…although they’ll often say they’re just trying to write a good read, there’s almost always something more going on.

Well, and what are you working on now?

Right now I am starting…well, I had several little small projects I had to get finished, but the novel I’m working on now is…I’ve written several novels with David Weber in his Honor Harrington universe, which is very popular, and we’ve done three novels together in that universe and I am starting the fourth, which is a sequel to the third. And I’ve gotten into it pretty well. It’s a complex novel and it’s somewhat difficult to write for reasons I don’t want to go into because they’d take too long, but I think everything is pretty well squared away. It’ll be a long book.

And if people…and you did mention there’s a Ring of Firebook that is just out?

I just published one…well, I didn’t, Baen Books did…it came out in April, last month. It’s called 1637: The Polish Maelstrom, and…that’s not a collaborative novel, I wrote that on my own…and it’s one of what I call the mainline novels, and what I mean by that is it’s a big sprawling complex series, but there is a spinal cord to it, and there are seven novels that are in that, what I call the main line, and five out of the seven I wrote on my own, two of them I did with David Weber. And this one is the seventh and most recent of them, and it’s a direct sequel to the book that preceded it, which is 1636: The Ottoman Onslaught. That just came out. The next one that’s coming out is coming out in September, and it’s a book I wrote with Iver Cooper, it’s called 1636: The China Venture. And this will be the first time the series goes into China. And Iver has written a number of things, he wanted to collaborate on a novel with me, we’ve been working on it for quite a while. He has done…I know quite a bit of Chinese history, but Iver has done an enormous amount of research on it over the past few years. So that’s coming out in September.

Then, in November…this is a book…my name is not on it because I didn’t have anything to do with the writing, although I did help him work out some of the things… but it’s by David Carrico. It’s called The Flight of the Nightingale and it’s got two short novels in it, and that’s coming out in November. And then…well, there’ll be more stuff coming out, but I don’t know exactly when they’ll be coming out. Chuck Gannon and I have just started to work…will be just starting to work on the sequel to 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies, and the new book will be called 1637: No Peace Be on the Line. And that’s a book, a naval…maritime adventures in the Caribbean, let’s put it that way.

So, lots to come.

Oh yeah, oh yeah.

Well, thank you so much for being on The Worldshapers. I should just mention where people can find you online.

Yeah, there’s a number of different places. I have my own website, which you can find at www.ericflint.net. Somebody had bought .com and wanted me to pay him $2,000. I said, “Screw you.” Actually, I do post there, but I tend not to post on a regular basis. I’m more active on Facebook, so you can find me on Facebook. There’s also a 1632fan site, it’s www.1632.org. There’s the magazine’s web site, which is grantvillegazette.com, and, for the past three four years now, we’ve launched our own publishing house, so that’s called Ring of Fire press and that’s got its own website. And Baen’s Bar, I drop by there pretty often. So…that’s Baen Books’ website, where they have a big discussion area called Baen’s Bar. So, I’m not hard to find online.

I guess not. Well, thank you so much for being on The Worldshapers. I’ve enjoyed the conversation.

I have, too. Thank you very much.

Thank you!