He started by describing his maps. He uses "Fractal Terrains" mapping software to generate a world, then raise and lower land masses. In the case of this trilogy, he wanted a place that would be cold and inhospitable, and used Russia as a basis for one of the major cultural groups because he didn't want to use Europe. He wanted the place to feel new, but not completely foreign, so he modeled it after Muscovite Russia with gunpowder and magic, and used Russian for the names (often looking at maps of Russia for place names). The Russian-based group isn't the only one in this world, so he also looked at Persian and Turkish.
I asked him if it was always a trilogy. He said he thinks of stories in terms of trilogies, having absorbed the style from much of his previous reading. That said, he didn't know at first precisely where it was headed.
Brad explained to us the metaphor of the writer as architect vs. gardener. Brandon Sanderson, he explained, is an architect who plans out the structure of everything very carefully. George R.R. Martin is more of a gardener, who plans a bit and then lets things grow. Brad describes himself as more of a gardener, but he does want to know where the story ends up. He sometimes uses snowflake plotting, which allows you to expand a very short description of a book idea into larger and more complex structures. He says he tends to write up to a turning point, then reconsider his plan and re-plot as necessary.
He sees history, cultures, and conflicts as the bedrock of a story, and says that the story will be unstable if those elements aren't there. Characters are born from culture, and experience societal and familial pressures as well as pressure from friends. If he runs into sticking points, he goes back to character and cultural grounding to exploit points of tension.
I asked him if the world develops as he goes, and he said he uses exploratory drafts to try out voice, explore the world, and find out what is cool about it.
As an example, he told us a little bit about a new project he's just finished, about a pit fighter in a Tales of Arabia-like setting who goes about bringing down the 12 Kings of Sharakhai. There are gods of the desert, who are real, and meddle in human affairs. He said that he didn't know what the gods were doing at first, but that it clicked for him mid-book.
He likes to look for ideas all over the place, including Inspiration Midnight, NPR, or outside sources. He combines ideas and collects images of swords, costumes, jewelry and faces. Trawling for images often inspires him. He also feels inspired by musical playlists that keep him in the right headspace.
He told us a bit about the magic system in his trilogy. Rules are very important to him; magic needs to be a natural part of the world, not arbitrary. The series has more than one type. Elemental magic involves the summoning of spirits of water/fire/air/life, but the magic is changing, and using it is becoming more difficult. There are also ships made of magic wood that fly along ley lines, and a form of telepathy where women of the islands, the "matri" (mothers) can submerge themselves in cold baths and communicate through the ether, astrally projecting and detecting magic. He said that part of the process of development was simplifying his system. Magic and the plot affect each other organically.
For 12 Kings, he wanted the magic to be "easier" and took inspiration from Thieves' World. The Lays of Anuskaya trilogy has few magical artifacts, but 12 Kings has gifts from the gods, and blood magic. He's also working on a middle grade project in an Endor-like environment with treetop villages, and lynx that fly like flying squirrels. Kids in this world can glide with wing-cloaks.
Reggie asked how many different forms Brad has written in (books, plays, collaborations). Brad said he started with novels, and then took a number of conferences and workshops where he began networking. He then started playing with the idea of short stories, because though short and long forms aren't the same, some elements of skill translate well. It's easier to play with ideas in short form. 7500+ words is a typical length for his short fiction. He's written one comic book script, and tried a couple of collaborations.
Christian picked up on Brad's thoughts about sources for ideas, and suggested 'This American Life' on NPR and the Moth Radio Hour. These are true stories, 15 minutes long, and they have a lot of variation.
Brad suggested that going out and asking people about themselves can be really fascinating and give you unexpected ideas.
Christian asked Brad about his experience breaking into the field. Brad said he wrote something in college that he never finished, then wrote three trunk books. He tried to publish after the first one but got no answers, only form letters. So he started attending conventions and conferences, including Pike's Peak Writer's Convention and Colorado Gold (from the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers). He went to workshops as well, including Viable Paradise in 2003, Writers of the Future, Orson Scott Card's Boot Camp in 2005 and Clarion in 2006. He has even run his own workshop at this point. Networking helped him a lot and got him connected with his first novel publisher, Nightshade Books. He got the rights back to his trilogy from Nightshade after the first two books and ran a Kickstarter for the third, having already run one once for his short story collection. He says that in order for Kickstarter to work it has to be "the right project," but that it's a great option and helps to test the market. He feels he is a hybrid traditional/independent author.
Brad says writers have a strange combination of self-consciousness and overconfidence. He urged us to enjoy the steps along the way, to be proud, market ourselves. There is no avoiding pain. He told us he still has a day job in IT, writing at night and on weekends.
Thanks so much, Brad, for joining us, and thank you to everyone who attended! I hope to see many of you again this Thursday.