Recently, fellow author Rob Sanders asked via the comments ‘The ‘Crown’ series looks like exciting times for you, Gav. How did it come about?’. Never one to miss an obvious prompt for a post, here is the answer.
It was fortuitous for me that while I was leaving Games Workshop and having thoughts of writing full-time, former Black Library Overlord Marc Gascoigne was also beginning a new venture. I had chatted to Marco about the whole writerly-life-situation-thing so it was a pleasant development when he contacted me with news of the Angry Robot imprint, asking if I wanted to pitch for a novel or three.
Having recently left my job as a Senior Games Developer, I was financially stable for a while, which in hindsight proved invaluable to me during my transition into full-time authorship. Invaluable because that money meant that I did not have to be chasing commissions from the very first moment. I had a bit of work lined up with Black Library, but I was able to give myself a couple of months to plan, plot and prepare. Into this headspace came Marco’s invitation to come up with some ideas for him.
Finding a Suitable Audience
The first question I had asked myself when considering the freelance approach was what kind of books was I going to write? I really didn’t want to give myself any restrictions at that point, so I spent quite a bit of time in book shops looking at the various genres and approaches, seeing how various things were worked out, and I also looked at the books available in the local supermarkets to see what kind of thing makes it to their shelves (not being a celebrity, I had to rule out an ‘auto’biography). I picked up a couple of thrillers, a couple of more literary titles, and the first two books of George R R Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire (someone had given me a copy of A Game of Thrones when it was first released, but I picked up the first two volumes in the series as a reminder). I must admit that I never got around to reading the GRR Martin books because work got in the way.
I had just finished writing Malekith for the Black Library, and was planning Shadow King, so my head was very much in the place of epic fantasy. While I was confident I could turn my hand to a supernatural thriller or Dan Brownesque nonsense, my heart wasn’t really there. With Marco then asking for pitches, I decided that my first venture should not be too far from what I had already become known for.
I had been tinkering around with various ideas for fantasy novels and series since leaving GW, as well as writing some short stories for a group I had joined called the Quota. I would like to come back to those ideas in years to come, but none of them made the cut for what I would pitch to Marco. I needed something I was confident I could get into and deliver, whilst different enough to stand apart from my Warhammer and 40K work.
I’ve always been a fan of HBO’s Rome, and remembering that ol’ George RR was doing pretty brisk trade with his own tale of double-dealing and throne-snatching, it occurred to me that an epic, dynastic fantasy would not be such a bad place to start. The thing that had disappointed me a bit with Game of Thrones (and it is only a small disappointment) was the somewhat predictable tropes that were emerging – medieval world, castles, knights and dragons. Although presented in a somewhat new and different way than had become traditional, the elements being used were pretty tired. Added to this, I was certain that there should be clear ground between my Warhammer fiction and whatever I created out on my own.
So it was that pseudo-medieval was out and biblical, bronze age, swords-and-sandals was in.
I like to read a lot about history, particular ancient history, so I developed the idea of a Phillip-Alexander-Caesar-type character who would be the anchor for the novels. He would be a man of action (and not just action hero, but a character that changes worlds), a conqueror and empire-builder. Ullsaard was born pretty early on in the process, though originally the Crown of the Blood started with him already being king. Here are my first opening paragraphs, written in early July 2008 as an exercise to help me get into the character of the man:
THE CROWN OF THE BLOOD
BY GAV THORPE
Part One – Legacy of Asqos
The storm-lashed seas vexed King-Emperor Ullsaard III. He stood upon the chalky cliffs above Nuthris glaring at the jagged waves as they hurled themselves onto the shore. They not only kept their secrets from him, but sought to carve away his domains, inch by inch, one day at a time.
The rain slashed down onto the muddy clifftop, plastering Ullsaard’s dark hair to his face, soaking the long cloak wrapped around his shoulders and body. Raindrops clustered glistening in his short-cropped beard and slid down his sharp nose. A puddle was growing at his booted feet, but he did not care, nor even notice. His slate-grey eyes were intent upon the seas, his mind bent to their dominion. He was set with his legs braced against the wind, his tall, slender frame unmoving.
“Is there anything less caring in the world, or more relentless?” Ullsaard asked, his gaze still staring out across the waves. “There is nothing else in all the world that refuses to be tamed.”
His son, Mutaar, remained silent and Ullsaard could sense his petulance. The King-Emperor glanced to his right, to where his youngest son stood a little way back from the cliff’s edge, shivering and bedraggled. The wind buffeted the youth, who stood resolutely looking down at his feet, his arms crossed; a drip hung from his pouting lip and his sharp blue eyes were half-shut against the wind.
“Is life really so bad?” Ullsaard asked.
Mutaar glanced at his father sullenly.
“This place is miserable,” the boy said.
“It’s only miserable because you are,” said Ullsaard.
The King-Emperor threw open his arms, casting back his cloak to reveal his silvered armour. Rain rattled from the ornate breastplate, a damp tattoo sounded out upon a design of interweaving leaves.
“Feel the wind on your face, boy!” Ullsaard shouted, his voice a stentorian bellow perfected over countless parades and no few battles. “Let the rain wash over you, wiping away doubt and fear. Feel the life you have been given!”
Mutaar smirked at his father’s theatrics.
“I’d rather feel alive under a roof,” the son said. “There’s less chance of catching a chill.”
Ullsaard laughed and strode over to his son, his boots kicking up splashes of water and mud.
“You used to love the sea when you were a child,” Ullsaard said, laying a hand on his son’s shoulder.
“I still do,” said Mutaar. “The sea keeps its wetness to itself. The rain spreads its attentions liberally.”
“That’s what I like about it,” Ullsaard confessed. “It gives me perspective.”
“Perspective on what?”
“There is not a single man nor beast from sea to sea more powerful than I,” said Ullsaard, turning his son to face him. “The last census estimated my subjects to number more than seven million. The great and the good, the poor and the wicked, all owe allegiance to me. If I were a tyrant, I could cast you over that cliff right now and none would raise a hand against me, not even your mother.”
“I suspect she would complain a bit,” Mutaar said with a smile.
“The rain doesn’t care for all of that, not one bit,” Ullsaard continued, ignoring his son’s wit. “It rains on fishermen and emperor’s without hesitation. My great uncle, King Aresul, used to shout at the weather, or so the secret diaries of my grandmother claim.”
“If they are secret, how have you come to read them?”
Ullsaard’s path of thought was disrupted by the question.
“What?” the King-Emperor said.
“You said they were secret diaries,” Mutaar said. “They can’t be secret if you read them.”
“Well, there’s secret and there’s secret,” Ullsaard explained. “I wouldn’t read your mother’s diaries, or any of her sisters’.”
“Out of politeness?” said Mutaar.
“Not at all,” the King-Emperor said. “Why would I want to read what they really think about me? I’m quite happy in my ignorance, thank you.”
“Did you have a point?” Mutaar asked. “Only, I’m start to lose the sensation in my fingertips.”
“A point? Yes, of course.”
Ullsaard extended his arm across his son’s shoulders and turned so that both were facing the sea again. He waved an extravagant hand out towards the waves.
“The rain, and the sea, are reminders that the struggle is never done,” Ullsaard said. “
This changed quite quickly, with Ullsaard being demoted to a prince, though the shape of the story-as-it-turned-out was forming quickly. The plot I initially worked out charted Ullsaard’s desire to inherit instead of his older brothers. Everything was going fine until I realised something terrible… I was essentially rehashing the plot of Malekith! I even posted about it – here and here.
For your edutainment, here is a rough of the original plot/ plan. No spoilers, it bears little relationship to what I ended up with, other than the very beginning (odd how some ideas stick when everything else changes, isn’t it?).
Crown of the Blood I – Structure
A self-confident, ambitious man in his mid-forties, Ullsaard is a prince of Asqland, second and youngest son of the king. As one of ‘the Blood’, drawing direct lineage from Asqland’s founder, Ullsaard has led a life of combined privilege and duty. He embodies the Asqlander ideals of military acumen, personal bravery and dedication to the nation and the ideals of Asqos. Ullsaard is not due to inherit the throne and when he finds out that his older brother is dying from a sickness heplunges Asqland into a deadly war to save him. However, he is to realise that his brother is unsuitable to inherit and eventually claims the Crown of the Blood for himself, thereby breaking a true line of several hundred years and ultimately dooming the empire to collapse.
A young adept in the temple of mysterious eulanui, Nikahor is one of the acolytes despatched to bring Ullsaard to the temple in order that the eulanui can be reinvigorated. He is naïve and knows nothing of the worlds outside the temple. Though indoctrinated into the cult of the eulanui, his travels and the influence of his friend Dort show him the evil that is perpetrated by the cult of the temple, and he eventually warns Ullsaard and the others of the eulanui’s intent.
Anglhan is a debt guardian,
Cosuas – Veteran general of the Asqland armies, friend of King Nardun and self-imposed mentor of Ullsaard. Pragmatic and
Dort – Nikahor’s friend
In Asqland society men marry all of the daughters of a family, to increase the chances of producing an heir. Each wife bears only one child before being sterilised by the Brotherhood. Ullsaard has three wives, from eldest to youngest: Allenya, mother of Mutaar, matriarch of the family, the steady hand and head, and a caring mother for all three of her sons; Luia, mother of Kariq, a wayward woman often at odds with her sisters but conniving enough to keep this from her husband; Aumeliu, mother of Ullnaar, was still a child when she married as is absolutely smitten with her husband and son.
Kariq is the eldest being in his mid twenties, with an ambition that outstrips even his father’s and a spiteful streak to match. Mutaar is the second son by only a few months, dull but dependable, dedicated and loyal to his father. Ullnaar is the youngest, in his mid-teens, and is spoilt by his young mother, though he is probably the quickest-witted of the three.
Brother – Kamaud
Mothers – Calmeti – Duialla
Ullsaard story Eulanui story Anglhan story Peritia story
Lakhyri – The magic is failing, the Eulanui speak
Ullsaard – Ullsaard fights the Ascarni
Ullsaard – return to camp
Cosuas – camp life
Ullsaard – learns of brother’s illness.
Asuhas – going to the ship
Kulrua – aboard ship
Ullsaard – reaching the wall.
Nikahor – travel across the waste into the mountains
Nikahor – descent into the pastures
Dort – goatherding, Nikahor’s appeearance.
Nikahor – talks of Asqland
Dort – leaving the village
Anglhgan – introduction
Ullsaard – riding into the city
Peritia – picked up by Ullsaard, coming to the palace
Ullsaard – audience with the king
Asuhas – sees his sick father
Ullsaard – meets the family
Peritia – Bedded by the prince and discarded. Taken for execution but escapes – burns Ullsaard’s eye. Some form of visible scar or other indicating feature on Peritia.
Kulrua – calms Ullsaard, Kariq despatched to hunt the woman.
Peritia – fugitive in Asq
Anglhan – comes to Magilnada, finds it in rebel hands.
Nikahor – Passes through Magilnada
Gelthius – The debtors are freed.
Furlthia – forced into rebel army
Dort – Reach the borders of Asqland, the great wall, turned away.
Ullsaard – visits the ‘oracles’
Lakhyri – contact with the oracles
Nikahor – Sneaks inside and goes to Asq. Met by the oracles and Ullsaard. Dort dispensed with.
Peritia – Fugitive in wilderness.
Dort – meets Peritia
Peritia – Come across village, takes shelter.
Kariq – Kariq comes to village
Dort – Peritia hidden but when soldiers have gone they decide to leave.
Kulrua – Herald despatched to Salphoria.
Kulrua – Confrontation with king, herald killed
Gelthius – A skirmish with Salphoria as king sends troops to border
Ullsaard – Ullsaard’s rage at death of Kulrua.
Kariq – Hunting the woman.
Cosuas – messengers from Asqland. Marches north with army.
Ullsaard marches on Salphoria
Peritia – Peritia and Dort come to Magilnada.
Furlthia – Ullsaard comes to Magilnada.
Anglhan – Rebel leader defies Ullsaard. Anglhan speaks out against leader, division. Dissenters allowed to leave.
Furlthia – undecided but loyalty to Aglhan wins over. Anglhan strikes deal with Ullsaard. Anglhan leads Ullsaard into Magilnada. Furlthia disgusted, leaves.
Ullsaard – Ullsaard enters Magilnada.
Gelthius – chooses not to warn rebel leader, surrenders instead
Cosuas – the butchery of the rebels.
Anglhan – Anglhan made governor by Ullsaard.
Ullsaard – first battle
Nikahor – slips away from army to take news to the Temple
Gelthius – the march on Carantathi
Ullsaard – delegation of campaign to Cosuas, the seeking of the temple
Mutaar – the expedition into the mountains
Luia – foreboding at the edge of the waste
Nikahor – Returns to temple
Ullsaard – Ullsaard comes to the temple of the eulanui.
Nikahor – meets Luia and warns her to leave.
Ullsaard – The ritual and double-cross.
Lakhyri – warning from the eulanui
Ullsaard returns – news of father’s death
Brother should inherit, takes crown instead
Secret of the crown revealed
Furlthia – Anglhan dreams of ruling Salphoria
Peritia – Gives birth
Anyways, the story and the arc for the trilogy went through various iterations. When I was happy, I met with Marco again and made a verbal pitch over lunch. Marco was intrigued enough that he asked me to write a sample and flesh out the plot some more.
This was when I made one of my biggest mistakes. I went away and worked up 10,000 words or so for the book’s opening, as well as putting the plot into something resembling a coherent document. I then spent about three months reworking the sample. And reworking. And reworking. And that was the big problem. My natural writing style is fast and fluid for the most part, and with so many rewrites the sample had become stodgy and packed with purple prose. Luckily for me, Marco had seen how I can write before and after providing feedback on the sample (along the lines of ‘get rid of all the waffle’ and ‘kill all of those adjectives’) went ahead and commissioned the book despite the appalling state of the writing sample…
Never, ever (and I mean ever) overwrite. If description is too lean, it can be expanded. If dialogue is too sparse, it can be lengthened. Like putting salt in a recipe, you can always add more but it’s really hard to take it out.
As part of the rationalisation of the plot, I had a good overhaul of the names too. There was a definite feel that I wanted, but some of the names were getting a bit too strange and the theme I had been developing was getting hidden.
After all that work, the only thing left to do was to write three 130,000-150,000 word novels! Two down, one to go.
All right, that’s not exactly the easy bit. There’s the sketchy map OI had to draw, the replotting of segments that weren’t working, the introduction and removal of characters, and all sorts of other transformations.
This has been the beauty of writing The Crown of the Blood. With Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000, even if I am creating my own plot and characters, so much of the universe is set. In some ways that is good and a pleasant challenge, in others it presents restrictions. Embarking on My Very Own Work ™ has been a case of taking an absolutely blank piece of paper and starting from there. Everything, even if heavily inspired by history and real people, had to be created or pulled together.
It’s a process that is still ongoing. Though The Crown of the Conqueror is now on sale, I have to think about book three, The Crown of the Usurper. I know the basics of what is going to happen, but as with the start of the series’ life, the end is also mutating as characters’ fates ebb and flow in my mind. Some will certainly die, others will survive, and I can honestly say I do not know for sure about anybody’s destiny yet.
The nature of publishing being what it is, I do not just have the third book to occupy me. With the initial trilogy written, Marco has posed me another question and offered another opportunity – what do we do next? As an author writing all day, every day for a living, the hard questions are not about the book you are writing or the one you are about to write; it’s the one that’s a year down the line, two years, maybe five years from now…