Today’s blog guest is Deborah Chester, author of over 40 critically acclaimed novels. A long-time force in the sci-fi/fantasy world, Deborah is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the 1985 Oklahoma Writer of the Year and induction into the Writers Hall of Fame of America.
She is a professor at the University of Oklahoma where she teaches professional writing in the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication.
RLM: Tell me about your childhood and education. What first led you to writing as a career?
DC: I am an only child and grew up with very few playmates or companions. Both of my parents worked long hours, including weekends, so I was left largely to my own devices. I was a bookworm, of course. I also spent a lot of my time outdoors, playing with my pets and prowling the woods. My imagination was extremely active, so I entertained myself playing make believe. (There were no video or role-playing games when I was a child.) I spent my childhood summers on my grandparents’ cattle ranch in New Mexico, where I experienced a very different environment and culture, learned the ways of cowboys, and worked on the ranch around horses and livestock.
My hometown was smallish and did not have a bookstore, so I haunted the public library. In fact, I was allowed to check out unlimited books at a time because I read them so fast, and when I was eleven the head librarian allowed me full access to the grownup section. As a result, I didn’t read many chapter books or children’s classics. Given that I read the unabridged The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas when I was nine, I jumped quickly to historical fiction, adventure fiction, and science fiction. I remember walking between the tall shelves of books and wishing with all my heart that one of my stories would someday be among them.
I wrote my first story when I was nine. I believe I managed four handwritten pages before I got stuck and abandoned it. From there, I continued to create stories, trying to figure out how they should be put together. My family subscribed to the TV GUIDE magazine, and every week I would read it from cover to cover, absorbing the one-sentence plot summaries for every program. When I watched movies, I would study the closing credits to see what book the film had been adapted from and I would try to obtain the novel from the public library to compare the two versions.
I had written three novels by the time I started college. And although I submitted them, as well as numerous short stories, I sold nothing. I chose to attend the University of Oklahoma because its Professional Writing program was considered one of the best in the nation. It proved to be exactly what I needed. By the time I graduated, I had two novels written for senior assignments that I subsequently sold. I also had a literary agent representing me when I left school.
Five years later, I decided to pursue my master’s degree and so returned to OU. In my second year of graduate work, one of the PW instructors left and I was hired to replace her part-time. Later, I secured a full-time position.
RLM: You write in a range of genres – fantasy, science-fiction, and historical romance –which would you say is your favorite and why?
DC: My real love has always been historical fiction. While I was a teenager, I discovered Regency England through the works of Georgette Heyer and C. S. Forester. I read and re-read their books, and put those authors on pedestals. But when I was finishing college and trying to break in, historical fiction was a dead duck. The hottest trend on the market happened to be bodice-ripping historical romances, with Regency romances a close second. So although I hadn’t intended to focus on romances, I was able to break in with a romantic Regency story.
Once the Regency market dried up, and trends moved elsewhere, I shifted my focus to my childhood love – science fiction – and broke into that market, where I stayed for a long time.
However, I finally decided that I might do better writing fantasy – which at the time was outselling everything else. I figured I could combine my love for history or quasi-historical settings with adventure and the unusual. So I switched over to traditional fantasy.
RLM: How do you feel teaching writing at the University of Oklahoma has affected your own writing?
DC: It has forced me to keep up good writing habits and maintain the writing craft that I demand from my students. It has also required me to outline and prepare a project in advance so that when I have a block of writing time, I can use it efficiently.
RLM: What is a typical writing work day look like for you?
DC: In my campus office, I keep a quote from the writer Somerset Maugham on the wall: “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”
So I try to be at my desk—dressed and ready for the day—right after breakfast. I start prepared, knowing what I want to write about. I prefer to write a complete scene at a time, so when I start I’ve already decided on the characters involved and what the conflict will be about. I absolutely hate to break off before a scene is complete. I don’t want to stop in the middle of things. It breaks the flow for me, and I generally lose some of the emotional force I want from my characters. So I aim to get as much of a chapter written in a day as I can. I’ll break for lunch and errands or some kind of physical activity, then I’ll resume work for the rest of the afternoon.
RLM: What can a reader look forward to in The Fantasy Fiction Formula that hasn’t already been covered in your extensive blog posts?
DC: I’ve arranged the book in much the same way I organize and set up a novel. There’s a methodical order to the chapters, dealing with the planning, opening a book effectively, dealing with the middle—the hardest portion to write—ending the story in an exciting and satisfying way, and revising.
The blog posts are more random, dealing with whatever topic occurs to me that day.
Also, the book features numerous examples drawn from fantasy novels and films of all types. I try to explain my points in more length than most of the blog posts. And all the chapters dealing with technique feature drills and exercises to reinforce my points.
Most importantly, the book contains tips and information that I share only with students in my classes … and do not provide for free in the blog. When people pay college tuition or purchase a book, they should get more of what I have to offer.
RLM: How much historical research do you do for any given book? And what measures do you take to ensure your portrayal is accurate?
DC: If I weren’t careful, I would be researching for years instead of actually writing the book. I love history and I want to bring it alive for readers.
However, while I was a student at OU, one of my writing professors taught me that I should write the rough draft of my books first, and then research only what I need to support the plot events of the story. It’s such sensible advice.
In my fantasies, I like to take a real historical setting or situation and use it as a foundation model. Then I’ll spin off from there into the fantastical. For example, when I was creating The Sword, I modeled the kingdom of Nether on medieval Russia, drawing on its terrain, climate, and aristocracy. I modeled the adjacent kingdom of Mandria on renaissance France. Therefore, Nether is dark, primitive, dangerous, and less advanced culturally than Mandria, which is prettier, refined, wealthier, and more relaxed. The two countries are allies, but they fight differently, have different faiths, wear different armor, deal with magic differently, wear different styles of clothing, etc. Such diversity brings more plausibility to the story, along with a richer reading experience for my audience.
After I select my models and take the details that I want, I do a lot of thinking and extrapolating. For example, in my Ruby Throne series, beginning with Reign of Shadows and continuing through The Pearls and The Crown, the empire is a thousand years old yet in all that time only one emperor has held the throne. His use of black magic to stay immortal is a subplot issue in the series, but my point here is that he has held his realm back from a lot of the natural change and progress it would have made under multiple rulers. Because my model for the story world is ancient Rome, the army is organized with legions and so forth. I have tweaked terms, changing centurion for example to centruin.
I feel accuracy of setting in fantasy fiction has a lot to do with plausibility and the use of specific detail. So, for example, if a character is a high church official, where would he be housed, what would he wear, how wealthy is he, and does he like luxuries despite his order’s insistence on vows of poverty from lesser brethren? I try to think through what would have been historically right before I tweak it to fit the setting I’ve invented. And of course, the needs of the plot affect every decision and choice I make.
DC: It’s difficult to answer this question. Does any writer accurately see what she really does?
I suppose I’ll choose fast pacing. My early books move almost in a blur, and were sometimes criticized as going too fast. Gradually I learned to slow down a bit at key points to allow readers to breathe. But I like to grab readers with sharp hooks. I like to move the story quickly. I like to put my characters in danger, and I’m not squeamish about eliminating characters if their deaths will advance the story and put the protagonist into greater trouble.
RLM: Which of your books should a reader start with, and why?
DC: My recommendation would be The Sword. I love the story world I created for that series. I feel that it offers an appealing set of characters and a solid plot.
RLM: Some of your books are no longer in print or available in digital format. Do you have plans to repackage them and release them yourself?
DC: Yes. For the past two years, I have been slowly releasing digital versions of the six-book Spacehawk series, science fiction action adventure I wrote under my Sean Dalton pseudonym. I hope to release the final two books — Destination Mutiny and The Salukan Gambit —in 2016. They all have new covers, and I am editing them as I find time.
In 2015, thirteen additional titles of fantasy and science fiction from my backlist were released digitally. (Besides the Spacehawks series.) Although some of these books were originally published under two of my pseudonyms—Sean Dalton and Jay D. Blakeney—the new versions are all as Deborah Chester.
My latest fiction release is a novelette called The King’s Lady, (Kindle, December 2015) a fantasy that immediately follows the events in The Chalice.
I have plans for more stories that will fill in gaps in the chronology of the Nether and Mandria series. Originally these books were supposed to run parallel to each other, but the Nether side of the series pulled ahead of what was happening in Mandria. I have always wanted to address that, and there are some story events in both series left hanging that I hope to answer.
I’m also working on a YA paranormal story—very much still in progress and on speculation.
There are always more stories to write than time!