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Bloody-Handed Heroes: Howard Andrew Jones on Writing a Pathfinder Tales Novel

Posted on March 6, 2012 by Flames

In Plague of Shadows by Howard Andrew Jones, the half-elf Elyana and her companions must race across the ravaged land of Galt, scale the Five Kings Mountains, and scour the Vale of Shadows for the cure that will save the cursed Lord Stelan.

Prepare yourself, for Plague of Shadows, dear reader, is fast-paced, sword-and-sorcery at its best.

“Friendship and loyalty lie at the heart of Plague of Shadows,” said Jones. “In whom can you really place your trust, and what does friendship really mean? Not that I’m ever on a soapbox about it. But loyalties, choices, and friendship drive the plot.”

In the short form or long, Jones has been praised frequently for his lightning quick pacing and irresistible plotting—pacing that does not sacrifice character development but depends upon it. Indeed, as Jones says below, “plot is character.”

Writer, editor, and RPG gamer, Jones is the Managing Editor of Black Gate magazine and the editor of eight volumes of Harold Lamb’s historical fiction for the University of Nebraska Press.

For the last ten years or so, Jones has been writing about Dabir and Asim, a guardsman and a scholar living in the 8th century Abbasid caliphate (Baghdad). Last year, the Dabir and Asim stories were collected in The Waters of Eternity (recently made available in e-book format). The duo also appear in the historical fantasy novel, The Desert of Souls, and the forthcoming sequel, both from Thomas Dunne Books. Seek them out. You will be rewarded handsomely.

Below, Jones and I talk about swashbuckling action, unlimited budgets, and bloody-handed heroes.

What drew you to the world of Pathfinder? And how’d you come to write a Pathfinder novel?

    I was the Managing Editor of Black Gate magazine for years, and one of the duties I most relished was being in charge of game reviews. I could have, and maybe should have, handed that duty off to someone else, but I love role-playing games, and ended up reading a lot of modules, supplements, and campaign guides. Paizo’s were among the best, and I became friendly with both Erik Mona and James Sutter, in part because I so respected their work, and in part because they’re nice guys who share some similar reading interests with me. When James learned that I’d signed on with St. Martin’s to write an Arabian fantasy series, he asked if I’d be interested in writing for Pathfinder, and so I jumped at the chance.

    Where does a novel usually start for you–image, plot, character, event, somewhere else altogether? Where’d Plague of Shadows start?

      Character, definitely. If I don’t have a character, I don’t have a plot. I agree with my friend Chris Hocking [author of Conan and the Emerald Lotus] who says that plot is character, in a lot of ways, especially in adventure fiction. Plague of Shadows started with the conception of a haunted, driven protagonist. I wanted more of a gritty sword-and-sorcery feel than a high magic feel, and so I wanted a character that could play to those sensibilities. Once I had Elyana, I realized I wanted to be able to address both the backstory and the present and interweave them by threatening something she used to value. And I also wanted to play with some standard conceptions about adventure fiction. I started out with what I thought would feel like a linear plot, but at the one third to halfway mark I threw in wrenches that popped the story into a different track. I had a lot of fun with that.

      What makes for a compelling protagonist in general and a compelling fantasy protagonist in particular?

        I think a protagonist has to fascinate. We don’t necessarily have to be rooting for them – although I hope that readers will be rooting for Elyana and her companions – but they have to hold our interest. Robert E. Howard wrote an immense number of stories that don’t get nearly as much mention, among them some sterling historicals. One of his historical story cycles is centered around this bloody-handed reaver named Cormac Fitzgeoffrey. He’s not a nice guy by any stretch of the imagination, but in the third – and best, even though it’s unfinished – Fitzgeoffrey story, the character is so interesting to watch in action a reader’s basically on the edge of the seat waiting to see what will happen.

        And I think it’s important to say that a writer will try to make the fates and outcomes of all the important characters interesting to the reader. The character should have to face difficult choices, and carry the reader forward to fascinating places.

        What unique challenges does the world of Pathfinder demand of your characters? And of you as a character-builder?

          When writing a Pathfinder novel you’re allowed a great deal of freedom at the same time that you’re constrained by geographic conventions and the established rules of the setting. You can either approach that as a constricting limit, or as a knowable boundary; a vibrant playground to which you’ve been loaned the keys. The first way lies madness. The second way gives you the freedom to explore the world of Golarion on its own terms.

          Personally I’m not that interested in elves or dwarves because they have been written about so much already, so it’s probably ironic that I chose an elf as my central character. But she’s one of the forlorn, raised by humans, which means that she’s apart from both races, and that enables me to portray both human and elven society as an alien environment for her. That’s a lot of fun for me. As I start work on the second book, I’m spending more time from the viewpoint of Elyana’s friend Drelm, the half-orc warrior. Elyana, despite her occasional rashness, tends to over analyze things. And Drelm doesn’t think enough, and misses details. But for all that he’s a warrior-born, in some ways he’s a little more patient than Elyana, and, despite the many prejudices he’s faced, a little more comfortable in his own skin. I’m really enjoying the different perspectives they’re bringing to the developing story.

          Both of your recent novels—each set in a different world—hearken back to the glory days of pulp fantasy without feeling derivative. Who are your influences and what did they teach you?

            Well, I usually mention Harold Lamb, Robert E. Howard, and Leigh Brackett as my main influences, because they’re my very favorites. But I would remiss if I didn’t mention Roger Zelazny (especially the first Amber series) and Fritz Leiber, and Catherine Moore and C.S. Forrester… and there are scores of others. I am unapologetic about my love for adventure stories. I think we need stories of heroes. I don’t think we can exist on a diet of hero stories alone, but my own reading habits certainly prefer them over most other kinds of fiction.

            My favorite writers have compelling characters and a driving plot, and never take you anywhere that’s not interesting to see. I strive always to emulate them. Let’s face it, as a writer, you have an unlimited budget. In a few sentences you can conjure an image that would take set designers or computer animators hundreds of thousands of dollars to create for the screen. If you can do that, why would you ever want to place any important scene in a dull location?

            Both Plague of Shadows and The Desert of Souls are adventure stories full of swashbuckling action. Desert is set in a version of the real world of the 8th century, one where 1001 Nights style magic and creatures are real (though extremely rare). So the magic and monsters aren’t as pervasive as they are in Golarion, which means that when they do pop up, they’re even more startling to those who encounter them. Certainly I strive create the same kind of sense of wonder in both books. Writing a historical is similar in some ways to writing in a shared world setting like Golarion, because if you don’t get the details right, someone’s going to notice!

            What are you working on these days?

              Right now I’m putting the finishing touches on my next Arabian fantasy novel The Bones of the Old Ones, another standalone featuring the brilliant scholar Dabir and his friend Captain Asim getting swept up into things man was not meant to know. Their stories are a little like Sindbad crossed with Indiana Jones, with a bit of Sherlock Holmes and Watson thrown in as well.

              I’m also a few chapters into the next Paizo novel. It has three viewpoint characters this time, though it’s still third person limited. Readers of the first book will already be familiar with Elyana and Drelm, but might be interested to know that there’s a new character, a black-powder marksman (markswoman?) in the thick of the adventure. I plan on drafting a few Elyana and Drelm short stories in the next year, and I have two more Dabir and Asim Arabian fantasy novels to write. So I’ll be busy, and happy, for a long while to come.

              Any parting words of encouragement, caution, or mischief for aspiring novelists out there?

                If you really can’t live without being a writer, then stick with it. You have to be stubbornly committed to getting things finished, but open at the same time to change and to criticism. Pay close attention to the writers who came before you and open up their plots and their paragraphs to learn what makes them tick. Find your own voice. And have fun. If you’re not having fun writing it, who’s going to have fun reading it?

                Interview by Jeremy L. C. Jones

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