Blog Post Zero: Beginnings

In which I inaugurate the blog with some backstory of how I got here, personally and geographically, and how I’m now on the verge of having my debut novel published by Del Rey.

“Where do I come from? Where do I come from?” – Duncan Macleod, Highlander, the Series.

I was always a writer. I wanted to be a writer long before I wanted to be an astronomer. I’ve been writing for almost as long as I’ve been reading; my first story was called “The Mountain Children”, and it was about three kids who had essentially grown up feral (although I doubt I knew that word then). They were based on the Tarzan of the old Johnny Weissmuller movies that were still being shown on TV then. Two girls and a boy: Val, Su and Chay. Children at home in the jungle. Having adventures.

My earliest interest in astronomy may have come from an old World Atlas my parents owned, with images of the planets in the Solar System as a frontispiece. As far as the Atlas was concerned Jupiter had twelve moons and Saturn ten (as of today: 67 and 62) and I had all their names memorized. Later on I looked at some of those moons, the Pleiades, sunspots, and the smudges of other galaxies through a small telescope I “co-owned” with my father. Astronomy.

By the time I went to secondary school in Yorkshire, England I was writing stories of intrepid men of action while hiding in the classroom during recess. I put the writing aside for several years to focus on (a) getting degrees (b) enjoying life in Oxford, but once I moved to the U.S. to take up a job at the Goddard Space Flight Center I also started getting serious about writing speculative fiction.

When I say I write, people who know me only as a NASA astronomer assume I write hard SF. I have, but generally I don’t, because it feels too much like my day job. My first story was “The Breath of Princes”, published in an anthology of original YA fantasy stories called A Wizard’s Dozen, edited by Michael Stearns. It involved a dragon, and a girl who only wanted to be rescued from it on her own terms. This was before electronic submission, and Michael initially rejected the story in a few terse but regretful sentences, and sealed it up in my stamped addressed envelope. Then had second thoughts, fished it back out of his pile and wrote all over the back of the envelope in his neat handwriting, pointing out the things I’d done wrong and telling me that if I could fix them, he’d be willing to look at it again.

Oh, I thought. Right. I get it.

I rewrote the second half of the story and had it back to him within the week. That story sold, and so did about three dozen others over the years. Fantasy, horror, and yes, SF.

Recently I’ve focused almost entirely on historical fantasy, and alternate and twisted history, with sales to Realms of Fantasy, Asimov’s, and others.

So where did Clash of Eagles originate? How did we get here?

When you read certain books you can almost feel the metaphorical scales falling from your eyes. It happened when I first grasped Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Oh, right. I get it. It seems so obvious once someone points it out. Why didn’t I realize that sooner?

Guns, Germs, and Steel was such a book for me. It pointed out just how reliant early civilizations were on the natural resources and beasts of burden around them. How the natural geography and environment affects the development of ideas. All other things being equal, crops, beasts, and ideas travel more readily along lines of latitude than north-south or south-north across ecological boundaries. And the early presence of livestock eventually brings immunity to certain diseases. All factors that have major effects on the pace at which societies develop, and what happens when societies at different levels of development clash.

1491 was next. I hadn’t realized till then just many people lived in the Americas prior to Columbus’s voyage and the disastrous European inroads, invasions, and infections that followed. It was also while reading 1491 that I started to think seriously about Cahokia, the great city-state on the Mississippi close to where St. Louis is now. Once Cahokia grabbed me it wouldn’t let go; I got a copy of Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians by Timothy Pauketat, devoured it, and ordered maybe ten other books about Cahokia. The rest, as they say, is history.

Before I knew anything else about the story, I knew that my new invading force would be Romans. Growing up in the north of England and taking vacations in the Hadrian’s Wall area had steeped me in Roman ruins and culture, and it was surprising I’d never used them in a story before. The Roman viewpoint on Nova Hesperia – my North America – was critical to the plot development in many ways. And as for the more… unusual aspects of the story, they just flew into my brain full-grown. Why base a city on huge earthen mounds if you’re not going to throw yourself off them?

I wrote “A Clash of Eagles” in 2008. The characters, ideas, and setting gripped me, and hard. It ended up much longer than I was anticipating: 25,000 words. I’d written a novella I really believed in, and it was too long for any major market.

Fortunately for me, Dario Ciriello existed. Dario was publishing a series of all-novella anthologies, and I’d already sold him a 31,000-word novella for Panverse One called “Delusion’s Song” about the Bronte sisters and a timeslipping anomaly centered on Haworth. Dario took “A Clash of Eagles” for Panverse Two, and it appeared in print in September 2010 to good reviews. Dario also sent in the paperwork to have it considered for the Sidewise Award for Alternate History, which may have changed my life.

Cut to the Reno Worldcon in 2011. “Clash” has been nominated, but is up against solid stories by Eleanor Arnason, Barry B. Longyear, Ken MacLeod, and William F. Wu. I know I don’t have a prayer, and at a rather sparsely attended book-signing I confide this to Mur Lafferty at the next table. She admonishes me to prepare an acceptance speech anyway, Just In Case.

Mur Lafferty is wise, because if she hadn’t told me that, I’d have been too flabbergasted to speak clearly when I won the Sidewise that evening. As it was, I remembered my three talking points. Tell the audience what the story is about! (Because most of them won’t have read it, but if you give them a good elevator pitch, they just might.) Give massive props to Dario and Panverse! And thank the judges and everyone in the room who just cheered! (Because you’re insanely grateful, and there are lots of more interesting things your friends could be doing than sitting here listening to you.)

I’d already written most of the novel version by then, but once I got home from Reno I went into overdrive; finished and polished it, sketched story arcs for the sequels, and was querying agents by spring 2012. I signed with the marvelous Caitlin Blasdell of the Liza Dawson Literary Agents in June and did some rewriting and condensation at her behest, and then she went to work.

On May 7th, 2013, I signed a three-book deal with Mike Braff of Random House/Del Rey. More in-depth editing and copyediting ensued, along with cover work, map work, and promotion. Clash of Eagles hits the streets March 17th, 2015, in the U.S., U.K. and other places, in book, ebook, and audiobook formats.

It’s been a long road.

And now comes the next step, the step where I’m a Published Author of Actual Books. I got used to being a short story writer some time ago. This? This feels completely different.

So that’s where I come from.

And now I get to find out where I’m going.

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