I’ve always been fascinated by embedded journalists. Chronicling a military campaign right in the middle of the action rather than second- or third-hand, at a safe remove. It’s hard to get more visceral than that—dust in the face, grit in the teeth, adrenaline thumping, shadows jumping, blood splattering immediacy, all while trying to just stay alive long enough to somehow give what happened some kind of coherency. Whether book or article, writing is often a solitary, quiet affair, but writing front and center on a military endeavor changes the whole ball game.
Being a self-professed geek (at least 12th level), I naturally take observations like this and start plugging them into a fantasy scenario. How would this play out with a quill and ink on a different world, and how could I complicate it to make such a chronicler’s life even more hellish than anything your modern embedded journalist might endure? I’m a cruel bastard like that.
Now, that phrase “embedded journalist” is a recent invention, but the notion isn’t—Jean de Joinville was a crusader groupie 700 years ago. And Glen Cook cooked up a ripping yarn about a chronicler in a mercenary company—you might have heard of it—so the idea isn’t unique to fantasy either. I had to figure out how to differentiate my take, so I resorted to that most ancient and venerable of writerly tactics, the “what if” game…
What if the archivist’s new patron provides only enough information to entice him along—promising adventure, hinting at fame—without supplying any of the really essential details. You know, like the fact they are going to be involved in a covert operation with decidedly bad odds of survival. And what if said patron belongs to a military order known for its treachery, renowned for black atrocities? What would convince a chronicler to take on job like that, murky and ill-defined, with unsavory company?
I considered having my archivist/narrator on the run from something, but I opted for more mercenary and foolish reasons. What if this gig sounds appealing because he’s ridiculously bored? Maybe recording the vastly uninteresting tales of merchants and minor nobles is just mind numbing enough to make the risk sound worthwhile. He’s being offered the chance to hitch his wagon to history being made—what’s a little danger along the way against that? (A big deal, as it turns out. A real big deal.)
And what if he’s just experienced enough to attract the attention of the patron, but young enough to be imbued with the extraordinarily dumb conviction that bad things always happen to everyone else?
OK, so he signs on, against his better judgment and misgivings. What else could I do to make things as painful as possible for the young scribe? Well, maybe his new patron claims to possess a cursed weapon that captures the memories of men he’s killed, bombarding him with them. And a steppe nomad traveling in the retinue has to drain those foreign memories out like poison. Is the patron mad? Who knows? Certainly not the chronicler, who’s really starting to think signing on to this gig was a colossal mistake. And all this before discovering that the military company is trying to engineer a civil war in a neighboring kingdom, and the last two chroniclers hired to accompany them might have met an untimely (as in, bashed to pieces with a flail) end.
So he’s forced to stay on, recording what he witnesses, trying to make sense of it all, and mostly struggling to avoid getting slashed, stabbed, crushed, shot, or smashed to death.
Unfriendly fire in front, unfriendly threats from behind, and not a whole lot of friendly in the middle.
This was the basic impetus for writing Scourge of the Betrayer. Then I had to figure out how to flesh this puppy out. While the canvas will expand as the series progresses, I really wanted the first book to be more intimate than epic in scope. No dark lords, no grand prophecies, no vast armies, and just enough of the supernatural or fantastic to be intriguing. A small cast of noirish characters, shady politics, and the intricacies and dangers of the operation revealed in a slow burn. The term “gritty” gets bandied around a lot as a marketing device, and it’s beginning to lose some of its potency (well, whatever potency it might have ever had). That said, if you’re going to go gritty, military fantasy is the place for it. Not exactly full of bunnies and rainbows.
Like most fantasy writers, I love worldbuilding. Coming up with elaborate magic systems, eons of history, deep cultures. But doing those things can be seductive—at least for me. It’s fun to spend months (or years) creating a richly detailed world, but you can get lost doing it, and if you forget to populate it with interesting, compelling characters and story, nobody will give a damn. So I knew with Scourge, and what I was trying to do, I would need to really rein myself in, to make the thing as character-driven as possible.
But being my own worst enemy, I still found a way to muck it up. Once I had the basic characters in place, I still allowed things to sprawl and bloat—I decided to have the chronicler not only record what was happening in “real time”, but also big chunks of back story narrated by the patron. Which took up tons of space on the page, slowed the pace down to a crawl in spots, ran counter to the patron’s generally reticent/secretive behavior, and proved to be one heck of a narrative mess to clean up when I decided to scrap the back story sections and strip them out, as those seriously impacted the structure of the more immediate sections.
But I like doing things the hard way. That’s how I roll.